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Jewish Journal

Facing Hatred on Campus: You Can’t Fight Fire With Flowers

by Roz Rothstein and Roberta Seid

May 11, 2010 | 6:03 pm

An increasing number of students report that efforts to demonize Israel have intensified on college campuses. Most recently, the student senates at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), held marathon debates about anti-Israel divestment resolutions. In May, the annual Hate Israel Week will be held on many campuses yet again.

Bruised by these painful experiences and taken aback by their increasing frequency, many pro-Israel students are concerned about the growing trend. They wonder why each time they douse anti-Israel fires, the flames reignite. They wonder what they are up against.

It’s simple. They face a dedicated anti-Israel movement that is not discouraged by temporary setbacks. The Muslim Student Union (MSU) and Muslim Student Association (MSA), allied with extremist groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), focus single-mindedly on one goal: demonizing Israel. This is not your normal student activism. MSU and MSA members are obsessively driven by their mission. They are determined, methodical, focused, well-funded and strictly organized. The leaders are usually devout and infuse religious and moral justifications into the movement, making hatred of Israel akin to a religious as well as social justice cause.

The MSU, MSA and SJP groups don’t just plan actions for their own schools. SJP and the 600 MSU/MSA chapters across North America use the Internet to coordinate their anti-Israel strategies and to share their best practices. They exchange anti-Israel propaganda. They share fliers, props and slogans. They analyze what was effective and refine their tactics and execution for the upcoming year.

The MSU and MSA also maintain continuity. New leaders are groomed to replace leaders who graduate. Incoming students are actively recruited, welcomed into the supportive fold of the organization, indoctrinated and fired up with zeal. Other methods also ensure continuity. For example, a young man standing at the “apartheid wall” display on a California campus this past April told a reporter for the Daily 49er at California State University, Long Beach, that he is a Muslim missionary who is volunteering for three years to accompany the wall and “educate” students about it.

The methods used by the MSU, MSA and SJP have only one goal — instilling hatred and intolerance against Israel and anyone who dares to defend it and the sincerity of its search for peaceful coexistence.  They launch slick campaigns, street theater and campus displays like the “Apartheid Wall.” They orchestrate demonstrations against pro-coexistence speakers and host pseudo-academic panels. They showcase far too many speakers whose only credentials are a Jewish background and a willingness to spew anti-Israel propaganda. They bid for academic credibility by asking professors hostile to Israel to co-sponsor their events. (For example, the programs for UCSD’s May 2010 anti-Israel week are co-sponsored by academic departments.) They form coalitions with campus groups by supporting popular student causes and by claiming they are activists for social justice and human rights, when in fact their only purpose is to vilify Israel, and they ignore the serial human rights abuses rampant in other countries. They work to promote their agenda in student government and the student newspaper.

Once they’ve laid this groundwork, the MSU, MSA and SJP move on to bolder measures: recommending punishment for Israel that their new allies will support, such as divestment. Divestment resolution campaigns, in turn, mainstream their anti-Israel message and bring it to an ever-wider circle through debates in student government and media coverage.

All of these tactics are part of a carefully thought-out, well-orchestrated, long-term offensive for turning Israel and its supporters into campus pariahs. This larger movement is at the root of anti-Israel actions on campuses. Most Israel supporters ignore this larger picture, hoping that the fires will burn out and go away. But they are not going away.  The movement is becoming more entrenched and more aggressive for two reasons: One is that the zeal of MSU, MSA and SJP membership is growing, fed partially by their successes and by their financial supporters.  Even when they don’t win campaigns like divestment resolutions — and in most cases they know in advance that winning is impossible — they consider it a victory that divestment was seriously discussed and that they created a platform to air their propaganda and to put Israel on trial.  As divestment leaders commented after losing the vote at Berkeley, “We lost the vote but won the night. We made a statement recorded for posterity and forced everyone to listen and watch.”

The second reason for the growing aggression of MSU, MSA and SJP is their expectation of a disorganized response from Israel’s supporters. Pro-Israel students are focused on other things, like school, their social lives and their futures, as students should be. They did not go to college expecting they would have to defend their identity or Israel. But on too many campuses, they are rudely awakened. Most become involved not because they intended to or have some sense of mission, but out of necessity.

Consequently, pro-Israel students are often caught off guard and unprepared for new anti-Israel ambushes, as happened with the UCSD student senate divestment bill this past April. The bill suddenly appeared on the agenda, and they had only a few days to put together presentations opposing it. Yet the divestment proponents had prepared for a year, recruiting allies and polishing their speeches, slogans and video presentations of Jewish far leftists and anti-Israel activists like Anna Baltzer and Hedy Epstein.

The pro-Israel students cannot be entirely faulted for their inconsistent responses.  They are often conflicted about what to do. They are hamstrung by concerns about offending other groups on campus and by often unsupportive or nonconfrontational administrations who give cover to these bigoted campaigns under the umbrella of free speech. Most university systems lack standards that protect the rights of all students, including those who are under attack by hostile campaigns. Pro-Israel students also sincerely believe that reaching out with sympathy and understanding for the other side’s grievances and engaging in reasonable debate will help defuse the situation. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the result. 

Pro-Israel students are also taken aback by the other side’s use of half-truths and racist anti-Semitic stereotypes, by their aggressive violation of the usual rules of conduct on campuses, and by some measure of discomfort, intimidation and even outright fear.  The 11 MSU students who tried to shout down Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), in February violated standards of civil decorum and free speech, and they were arrested. One of those arrested was the president of the MSU at UCI. In the United Kingdom, where, in May, Israel’s deputy ambassador was virtually assaulted by a menacing crowd, the constant intimidation has made Israel’s supporters there fearful of organizing pro-Israel events. At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, students placed a Palestinian flag on top of a pro-Israel exhibit. When a Jewish student removed the flag, MSU students physically attacked him.

Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, and Roberta Seid is director,
research-education, StandWithUs.

The constant harassment and incitement have made some students fear similar violence will be directed toward them. Some frustrated students are beginning to think that timid administrations are waiting for a pro-Israel student to actually be assaulted and injured so that they can finally take firm disciplinary measures.  Still other students wonder if administrations will act only after the divisiveness escalates to a religious war on campus. 

It is time for Israel’s supporters to stop operating under the misconception that these attacks are only campus-specific, sporadic or will simply burn themselves out. They cannot keep putting out individual fires without recognizing the arsonist. They must be willing to meet fire with fire, not with flowers. The flowers haven’t worked.

The seriousness of the situation must be recognized. Well-meaning students must absorb the disconcerting fact that the problem they are dealing with is a dedicated, international, orchestrated movement with a long-term battle plan. Judging from the recent divestment campaigns, if pro-Israel students don’t mobilize soon, their voices will be silenced and a false, ugly image of Israel will become the academic norm of North American education. 

What’s needed is a coordinated, carefully thought-out, long-term strategy that proactively plans programs and campaigns that are ready in advance to preempt the predictable anti-Israel actions. Coalitions must be built among Jewish and non-Jewish pro-coexistence groups on campuses across the country. Best practices should be identified and kept in place so incoming students can fill the shoes of graduating seniors, just as we see the “other side” doing.

Israel’s supporters should not expect to change the minds of those dedicated to the anti-Israel campaign. Their goal should always be directed at educating and engaging the wider community to affect the hearts and minds of the campus community as a whole.

Concerned students must also be willing to challenge the libelous charges hurled against Israel. Many students fear that debate will offend people or bring unwanted attention and credibility to the accusations, and some Jewish professionals advise them not to respond. But ignoring the charges hasn’t worked. They have grown like a cancer over the past several years.

The anti-Israel groups must be labeled and exposed for what they are:  extremists who oppose peaceful coexistence, instill hate and divisiveness, not understanding; who are bent on destruction, not on constructive solutions or compromise; who stand for racism, not human rights. They are not pro-peace or pro-Palestinian, but spoilers of peace who want to perpetuate the conflict.

If the courageous and far-too-often beleaguered pro-Israel students more fully adopt the long-term strategies, determination and coalition-building needed to face the MSU, MSA and SJP, there will be a positive change on campuses. Until then, the anti-Israel fires will continue to flare and Israel will continue to be unjustly marginalized by extremist groups that should have been exposed and marginalized themselves on campuses long ago.

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