The frame of debate about Israel and Palestine has recently shifted on US campuses. After the publication of “Peace Not Apartheid,” President Jimmy Carter has spoken at three universities. Professors Walt and Meirsheimer’s paper about the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often mentioned in international relations classes. The divestment movement is becoming better organized, as is the Jewish anti-Zionist movement. The organized Jewish community, including the 31 organizations of the Israel on Campus Coalition, knows that anti-Israel activity and sentiment have increased on campuses, but our current strategy for facing this challenge is fatally flawed.
I am troubled by many of the misguided conversations that take place on college campuses. As an active member of my campus left, I was privy to much misinformation and many double standards. For instance, I remember one late Saturday night, sitting around a housing cooperative deep in revolutionary conversation. Someone in the circle spoke eloquently about Black nationalism and in the same sentence disputed Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. If one supports ethnic nationalism, should this not be universal?
Yet I am also troubled by the Jewish community’s misguided response to these issues. There is a consensus in the Jewish community on our goals, which include redefining the debate, engaging progressives and building confidence in the pro-Israel base. We are following a strategy to accomplish these goals that I call “Don’t Hate, Celebrate,” promoting Israeli cultural programs on campus. This strategy is fatally flawed because it offers nothing in between being unconditionally pro-Israel and anti-Zionist. Either you can hate Israel or celebrate her. This won’t engage the Jewish students it is aimed at, nor generate support among non-Jews. The vast majority of college students don’t really want to choose either, but when presented with only these two options, many drift toward the one that promises progress and change. Unfortunately, with strategies such as divestment, only those who hate are currently offering such possibilities.
There are several other reasons cultural celebrations won’t accomplish the professed goals of the Jewish community. First of all, the changing tide of the debate is currently framed by people concerned with the livelihood of Palestinians. In no way will cultural celebrations redefine this issue. A college student who attends one event educating about human rights abuses in the West Bank and another promoting falafel and folk dancing as Israeli culture will not decide on that basis that Israel is a legitimate state. In fact, countering concerns about Israel with cultural celebrations only adds fuel to the fire by convincing students that the Jewish community is ignoring Israel’s very real problems. In addition, Progressive Jewish college students, defined by their serious political outlook, are not interested in cheerleading and cultural celebrations when they identify pressing issues that must be addressed.
Indeed, propelled by prominent professors and now a former president, the authority of this new anti-Israelism is difficult to argue with. If the Jewish community continues to operate under the assumption that we are fighting a public image battle, we will most certainly fail. Jewish college students at the forefront of this battle will continue to suffer demoralization.
The very real images of the occupation will not go away. No amount of programming on technological achievement or the advancement of gay rights in Israel can override them, and celebrating Israeli culture certainly won’t. It makes me sad that the Jewish community tries to hide from the realities of the occupation, and even more fearful that we ask our youth to do likewise.
The fear tactics that were once used to win unconditional Jewish support for Israel do not work on the younger generation. We are already two generations removed from the Holocaust; although the atrocities that happened to our grandparents’ generation are firmly imprinted in our minds, we will not ignore the liberal humanitarian values that we learned from our tradition but are continually violated by the ongoing occupation.
What do we need to do to engage most Jewish college students with Israel? Instead of celebrating, we should be activating. College students are interested in finding problems they can take ownership of and have a role in solving. Zionism is compelling because it is an attempt to build a “light unto nations.” If the Jewish community identified and promoted activists still working toward this goal in Israel today, they would connect more fully to the idealism of college students.
Jewish students would relate to the country if they were connected to their young Israeli counterparts who, like themselves, are working tirelessly to fix the problems in their own society. Students would take more interest in the country if they were informed of the conversations occurring within Israel, including the large segment of the population who, as patriots, criticize Israeli policies sharply and are determined to change them. Students would feel more confident in their own views of Israel, if they understood that many opinions the organized American Jewish community often condemns are legitimate within Israeli society. Students need to realize that the current mainstream organized American Jewish community certainly does not speak for Israelis and should not speak for them either.
This “Don’t hate, activate” strategy may also attract individuals that the Jewish community perceives as problematic. It asks students to support those actually working for change in Israel, instead of trying to isolate them with other strategies such as boycotts.
Some might argue that no one is going to persuade individuals promoting anti-Israelism on campus to do otherwise, but I disagree. There are two groups of people who hold anti-Israel views: There are those who have post-nationalist ideals and thereby take conceptual or principled issue with Israel. And there are others who, as global citizens concerned with human rights around the world, regard Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as an urgent issue needing change. If we acknowledge that we, as Zionists, agree with many of this second group’s concerns, including the way in which Palestinians do indeed suffer, they may be willing to listen to our views about Israel’s legitimacy. If we acknowledge imperfections, we might actually be able to engage them and they might acknowledge theirs. If we present Israelis actively working for progressive change, they might be able to see Israel as a society they also can relate to.
We need to offer to precisely these people alternative strategies for changing the current situation in Israel. The social-justice minded Jewish and non-Jewish students who support divestment, boycotts and other anti-Israel strategies do so because they are the only options offered as a way to make change. Many would certainly consider other options. Countless Jewish students don’t want to sign on to something that may cause an existential threat to Israel. In addition, even the radically minded who are able to think practically, know that a strategy which does not cause an existential threat is more likely to succeed. After all, these noxious measures have not been very successful to date.
How many socially-conscious college students think Israel is an apartheid state, because no other viable idea has been placed in their heads? When faced with a choice between Israel as perfect and Israel as apartheid, many understandably choose the latter. Furthermore, how many students were turned off by campus Hillel telling them they weren’t allowed to think the way that they do?
If we admit Israel’s flaws and genuinely show a commitment to fixing them, we may be able to connect with both these groups. The Union of Progressive Zionists is committed to doing exactly that, but the UPZ can’t do it alone. We, the Jewish community, need to offer space on campus for questioning and allow students to understand the full texture of Israeli society. After all, doesn’t our tradition teach us to question?
Reprinted from Meretz USA’s Israel Horizons, Spring 2007 issue