Several weeks ago, I returned from a coast-to-coast tour of the United States and Canada with mixed feelings. In dozens of events and meetings, I was exposed to a complicated and alarming state of affairs.
I’ll start with the good news: Our academic ties are in a state of unprecedented prosperity. In all my meetings with university presidents and senior officials, I encountered a favorable and warm attitude and a strong desire to advance academic cooperation in a variety of fields. So far for the half-full glass.
The picture is completely different on university campuses. Here Israel’s situation is difficult, or should I say on the verge of collapse. According to an Anti-Defamation League report, published about a month ago, some 90 anti-Israel incidents have taken place on campuses across the US since the beginning of the academic year – double the number of anti-Israel incidents in the same period last year.
These incidents include protests, mock “checkpoints” and “apartheid walls,” and even “eviction notices” slid under the doors of Jewish and Israeli students.
As many as 15 student councils discussed and voted on proposals for divestment from Israel and an academic boycott of Israel. Although not all of these proposals were accepted, the fact that the issue was raised for discussion and voted on to such an extent is an unprecedented phenomenon.
While the events of Operation Protective Edge provide a partial explanation for the rise in the number of anti-Israel incidents, the tone, the arguments and the type of incidents leave no room for doubt: What began several years ago as a local initiative on a few campuses has turned into a poisonous, organized and well-funded campaign with clear goals – isolating and boycotting Israel in general and the Israeli academia in particular.
These organizations are making wide use of the social media to distribute anti-Israel material, including clear anti-Semitic material.
At the same time, a campaign has been waged in many places in a bid to defame and intimidate pro-Israel activists on campuses. The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at the University of Minnesota recently decided to blacklist an Israeli candidate for the Student Service Fee Committee. The decision likened pro-Israel organizations founded by the candidate to the notorious Ku Klux Klan.
Another alarming trend is the increase in the involvement of faculty and university academic departments in sponsoring and even taking an active part in anti-Israel events on campus. The ADL report includes 57 such incidents in the past two years.
The pro-Israel students feel helpless in light of this phenomenon. Many feel threatened, and in conversations with them they express their fear of highlighting Jewish features and publicly expressing their support for Israel. “Where are you? Where is the Israeli response?” they asked me repeatedly.
That’s a good question. For an onlooker, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the State of Israel, and its different branches, as well as the Jewish organizations which are active on the campuses (sometimes in an outrageous lack of coordination), are failing to provide a real response to the anti-Israel wave.
The Jewish students themselves hardly take part in events on campus and are not showing much interest in workshops and programs aimed at training them to represent Israel on the PR level. The multitude of anti-Israel incidents, the aggressive discourse and the fact that almost every public event dealing with Israel, Judaism or the Middle East is accompanied by a loud public argument, instinctively deters many people from dealing with Israel, even in fields which have nothing to do with the conflict.
Israel’s decision makers should give this important issue a higher priority on their agenda. There is an urgent need for a reorganization of the system on Israel’s image on campuses in North America and Europe. The state must urgently appoint an official to deal with this issue and back the appointment with funds and authorities.
Every day that goes by without firm action continues the destructive damage to Israel’s status and image among tomorrow’s leaders, movers and shakers and voters.
Peretz Lavie is the president of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.