A great deal has been written recently, and rightly so, about the rise of anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses. Twelve years ago, when I first proposed that one could use the “three Ds” – double standards, delegitimization and demonization – to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism, most of the examples I found to illustrate my points came from Europe and international organizations. Yet today, nearly every American campus is as awash in double standards, efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state and rhetoric demonizing Israel as the newspapers of Europe or the committees of the United Nations.
For this reason, the Jewish Agency’s Israel Fellows program, designed to connect Jewish college students with Israel, is the most quickly growing of all of the agency’s initiatives. From its humble origins just five years ago, with representatives, or shlichim, on a dozen campuses, it now reaches more than 80 colleges and universities, with more to come. These fellows are what we might call the special forces of our nearly 2,000 shlichim to Jewish institutions worldwide. And this year, because of the unique challenges that arose following last summer’s war in Gaza, we strengthened our efforts and sent in reserves, fellows who had served in previous years and were ready to do so again.
These dedicated men and women, who operate as part of each college’s local Hillel team, work to bring Israel- related events to their campuses, to encourage students to visit Israel, and to strengthen the pro-Israel voice in campus debates. They are charged not only with convincing students to join Israel-experience programs, but also with accompanying them while there, developing relationships and encouraging them to speak up for Israel when they return to school. Such trips are among the most important and successful of all the post-Birthright programs, in that they use students’ positive energy about Israel to help change the atmosphere on campus.
That atmosphere is becoming more difficult by the day. Campuses are flooded with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions, which this year increased in both reach and intensity, appearing at a greater number of institutions and with a relentlessness that we had not seen before. Considering the absence of comparable calls to boycott the world’s most egregious human rights violators, there is clearly a double standard at work in such campaigns.
Delegitimization also plays a central role, as activists within Students for Justice in Palestine – the driving force behind the BDS movement – sing songs about a Palestine that reaches from sea to sea, leaving no room for a Jewish state. So too does demonization, with routine comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and the use of Holocaust symbols to characterize its behavior.
The danger of movements like BDS is not in the economic damage they could do to Israel; rather, it is in their ability to intimidate anyone who is ready to show sympathy to the Jewish state, an interest in traveling to it, or even a readiness to acknowledge his or her own Jewishness. In this environment, the majority of Jewish students very often becomes a silent majority. While it might seem encouraging, then, that on a representative campus 200 students will attend an Israel-related event organized by one of our fellows, while only 100 participate in BDS’s “Anti-Apartheid Week,” it is far less encouraging when one recalls that the same campus houses roughly 6,000 Jewish students, so many of whom simply choose not to get involved.
Many studies and focus groups have shown that even Jews who are sympathetic toward Israel and feel positively about their own Jewishness choose to be silent in order not to defy mainstream opinion, damage their career, or take up what seems to be a losing cause. To change the atmosphere, then, Israel’s sympathizers have to shift gears, from playing defense to launching a confident offense. They have to take back the banner of human rights and liberalism, and not permit this rhetoric to be misused by those who are defending some of the world’s most reactionary forces.
Recently David Keyes, founder and executive director of Advancing Human Rights, organized a free ice cream truck at New York University “celebrating” Iran’s execution of 1,000 political prisoners over the past 18 months. The event generated millions of responses online, and more than a thousand Iranians sent David emails of gratitude for his efforts to remind the world about the nature of the Iranian regime. Why not organize more such events to remind college students of which countries are in fact the world’s worst violators of human rights? Why not counter the theatrics of Apartheid Week, with its simulated walls and checkpoints, with equally visceral demonstrations of true atrocities such as Saudi Arabia’s flogging of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, or the massacre of thousands of Palestinians by Islamic State in the Yarmouk refugee camp? Against such a background, it will be much easier to remind people what a vibrant and rights-respecting democracy Israel is, and how even in conditions of war it makes great efforts to limit victims among its enemies. Jewish students should thus actively seek out partnerships with organizations representing other minorities on campus, and join forces with them to raise awareness about the many real horrors in the Middle East and beyond.
While this will not change the attitude of Israel’s enemies, or in any way diminish the importance of long-lasting peace with the Palestinians, it can be a powerful reminder to those ready to listen about the true nature of the human rights situation around the world, and about the fact that Israel is the only small island of democracy and freedom in its region.
The next crop of Israel fellows, who will attend training seminars in July, will find that this approach is an important part of their training. Their goal, and that of Israel’s campus defenders generally, must be a simple one: to help Jewish students feel not ashamed of their connection to Israel, but proud of it. There is, after all, quite a lot to be proud of.
The author, a former refusenik and prisoner of Zion in the USSR, has served in various ministe-rial posts and is currently the Chairman of the Jewish Agency. He will be speaking at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York City on June 7 on the subject of: ‘Jews on the Move: Why and Where are Jews Moving and Leaving Today?’