Jewish Journal

The Need for Campus Activism

by Roz Rothstein

Posted on Feb. 13, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The level of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on our campuses has been hotly debated in recent months. Some see an alarming surge of pro-Palestinian prejudices that drown out and intimidate supporters of Israel -- and too often cross the line into anti-Semitism. Others, including some Jewish campus leaders, minimize these trends and criticize organizations that have mobilized to counter them.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA's Hillel, for example, in a recent article in this paper, disparaged these organizations and their materials as "propagandistic," "polemical," part of the "anti-anti-Semitism industry" and of "dubious value."

Sadly, even though most Americans remain supportive of Israel, there is abundant evidence that in academia, opposition to Israel's policies has mutated into attacks that demonize the Jewish State, undermine its legitimacy and foment anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that "campus anti-Semitic incidents were up dramatically in 2002." "Too often," added a recent ADL newsletter, "anti-Israel activism crosses the line into anti-Semitism ... and the bad news is that there is a silent majority on campus that is simply not speaking out against anti-Semitism."

It is not surprising that this majority remains silent. Left-of-center ideology, with its fashionable post-colonialist critiques of America and Israel, dominate campus culture. Edward Said's bitter anti-Israel polemics hold sway in Middle Eastern Studies departments and pervade other disciplines. Pro-Palestinian views that distort Israeli-Arab history and spread disinformation have been accepted as fact in many campus circles. Visiting Israeli professors called their past year in American academia "a nightmare" because of their colleagues' intense and often ill-informed bias, Ha'aretz reported last August.

"An entire year of attacks, even in corridors, staff meetings and conferences ... there is an unquestioned assumption that Israel and the Israelis are the bad guys," said Dr. Liora Brosh who taught comparative literature at a New York State University.

Joint Palestinian-Israeli discussion panels often exclude the moderate view, though they masquerade as balanced presentations. Divestment campaigns that blame Israel alone for the conflict and ugly slogans such as "Zionism is Racism" abound. Pro-Palestinian rhetoric is couched in a potent brew of popular campus causes for social justice, human rights, anti-globalization and indigenous people's rights; and pro-Israeli students who share these values have trouble disentangling them from the Palestinian position. They also face an unfriendly environment. As journalist Daniel Pipes recently pointed out, when well-known pro-Israel speakers lecture on campuses, they require security protection. Speakers critical of Israel, however, do not.

It is little wonder that many Jewish students feel uncomfortable and besieged. The one-sided nature of the campus debate also leads other students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who otherwise would have no particular bias, to simply assume that Israel has no case.

Unfortunately, the solutions offered by some campus leaders do not go far enough to address students' needs or the larger problem. Their recommendations -- issuing healing messages, encouraging Jewish students to reach out to Muslims, supporting moderate Arab Muslim students -- certainly have merit, but they do not help students understand Israel's case and they do not fill the urgent need to counter the barrage of anti-Israel disinformation.

Israel has compelling ethical and historical justifications for its existence and its policies. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, ADL, National Hillel and grassroots groups such as StandWithUs have mobilized to make sure this information is part of the campus debate. Their arguments are mainstream, shared by a majority of the U.S. Congress and the current Israeli government. All students should be familiar with these positions even though they may not agree.

Pro-Israel organizations are helping turn the tide on our campuses, The Forward reported on Dec. 20, 2002. Many campus activists credit them "for providing increased resources and training to campus activists and helping them develop more proactive approaches."

Campus leaders need to be on the front lines encouraging -- not marginalizing -- efforts to better inform students and to ensure that all voices across the political spectrum are heard and respected. Suppressing conservative pro-Israel views will have the unfortunate effect of keeping the campus debate one-sided and of inhibiting dialogue. Students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully, their college years will expose them to the full range of issues about the beleaguered Middle East so they can make informed decisions in the future.  

Roz Rothstein is executive director of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid is director of research and education for StandWithUs.

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