Engaging with Israel on campus starts with relationships

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As the pro-Israel community addresses blockade-running Gaza flotillas, the vast majority of U.S. campuses already are on summer break. Certain campuses, including the alma mater of pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, Evergreen State College, have seen anti-Israel protests and resolutions, but most campuses still in session experienced relatively muted events as they turned attention to exams and summer plans.

The campus discussion this fall will doubtless include the Gaza blockade. But these recent events emphasize an important point: Campuses are different. Campuses operate on different schedules, engage in different discussions and require different approaches regarding Israel.

As executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 30 national organizations dedicated to pro-Israel campus engagement, education and advocacy, I hear from student activists, campus professionals and others about their experiences. Several trends for the coming year — and the needs of the campus pro-Israel community to be successful — have become clear.

First, Israel’s campus detractors have and will continue to focus on three D’s — divestment, disruptions and demonization — as part of a global effort to delegitimize Israel and paint it as a pariah state. This effort to delegitimize Israel among the constituents and future leaders of the United States, Israel’s chief ally, poses a threat to Israel’s long-term security equal to many of the threats Israel faces in its region.

Anti-Israel campus activists for nearly a decade have attempted to push campus boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel, but those efforts peaked this spring in unsuccessful, but highly publicized, divestment battles in the student governments of the University of California at Berkeley and San Diego. Prominent international Israel critics including Richard Falk, Desmond Tutu and Naomi Klein wrote the student senators to support divestment. Even some Israeli and Jewish Berkeley students, faculty and community members joined the divestment effort.

While the resolutions were entirely symbolic — university regents committed not to divest from Israel — the Israel detractors’ prime objective succeeded in obtaining a public forum to defame the Jewish state.

Anti-Israel activists also gained notoriety this year for disrupting pro-Israel speakers, from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago to Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. The detractors use the tactic to portray Israeli speakers as war criminals beyond the pale of campus discussion and attempt to deprive the speakers of a platform through which to share ideas with the campus community.

Divestment and disruptions coincide with attempts to demonize Israel. Israel Apartheid Week, now in its sixth year, makes “apartheid walls” and “Israel apartheid” lectures all too commonplace on many campuses. In some places, naive, misinformed and possibly ill-intentioned faculty departments have co-sponsored such events.

Against this disturbing backdrop, the pro-Israel campus community continues to build relationships on their campuses to promote a positive message around Israel, and to marginalize and negate the falsehoods popularized by Israel’s detractors. Savvy pro-Israel advocates understand that relationships stand at the heart of effective engagement. By building relationships with the key decision-makers on their campuses — administrators, department heads, student governments, campus newspaper editors and leaders of student organizations — the pro-Israel campus community is far more likely to succeed in defusing or deflecting anti-Israel activity and promoting a positive campus environment.

Relationship-building does not happen overnight, and it cannot be anything less than authentic and lasting. But smart activists expand upon these relationships by creating opportunities simultaneously to enhance the campus environment and provide more opportunities for engagement around Israel.

By creating Israel investment clubs; promoting joint programs with Israeli universities; demanding and attending opportunities for Israel study; supporting administration efforts to protect the academic environment and ensure speech free from harassment and intimidation; and emphasizing opportunities for immersion in Israel experiences through programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel, alternative break trips and long-term study and work programs in Israel, pro-Israel activists who start with effective relationship-building can enhance the campus community’s level of engagement with, understanding of, and desire and ability to stand with Israel against its detractors.

The Israel on Campus Coalition is ready to train students and campus professionals to build the relationships that will allow them to be effective in promoting a pro-Israel campus environment, but we cannot accomplish this work without the support of the broader community.

The challenges facing the campus pro-Israel community are real and will continue to mount in the coming academic year. But a coordinated, strategic approach both to counter Israel’s detractors and to enhance a pro-Israel environment — one that is authentically oriented to the unique needs of campus and aimed at building effective relationships for the long term — can and must be achieved. The campus community deserves the broader community’s support to achieve these goals.

Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.