Judy Maltz recently wrote an interesting article with the premise that young Jews are turning off to Israel because they don't want to get caught up in the political debates on campus between Israel's supporters and their antagonists. Like many other writers who have promoted this theme of the abandonment of Israel by the young, she gets part of the story right, but most of it either wrong or out of context. In fact, what she describes is not new, and not a reflection of any particular social movement or shift in attitudes; Jewish students have actually changed very little since at least the 80s when I was a campus activist.
Most students are interested in sex, drugs and rock n' roll in college and, if there's been a change, its been toward growing more serious about their futures. These students don't have the time or the interest to devote to issues they have no control over or don't directly effect them. These careerists typically spend their time on their studies and achieving their goal of finding a good job or attending graduate school.
There is certainly nothing new about Jewish students having no opinion regarding the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or eschewing unpleasant debates that often turn into shouting matches. Most students are not comfortable or trained for verbal combat. And who can blame them? After all, engaging with the avowed anti-Zionist is not going to lead to a change in their opinion no matter how articulate and knowledgeable you might be.
One big difference today is that students are more likely to say they "fear being targeted for being Jewish." Many Jewish students say they feel uneasy, but they are in no physical danger on any campus in the United States. As I've written before
, to some degree this is more of a phobia and a product of what I called students' lack of grit to stand up to, or shake off, unnerving incidents that had little effect on previous generations. My old UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller has it right when he told Maltz that what passes for anti-Semitism today is students feeling uncomfortable. "You know what," he says, "maybe one of the reasons you go to university is to feel uncomfortable."
I sometimes here claims that conditions are worse today because of the intifada or the Gaza war or any number of events that cast Israel in a negative light. It's not new. When I was at Berkeley in 1981-83, I sat alone at a table draped with the Israeli flag and some hasbara materials. Next to me was the Muslim Students Association table with a sign that said "Zionism is Racism" and handouts of the highlights of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 1982, the Lebanon War was in full swing and protestors regularly marched and chanted in front of me. Sure, that was uncomfortable, and the immediate environment felt hostile, but I wasn't scared or deterred from setting up my table in the heart of the maelstrom.
That was me and not everyone is prepared or willing to stand up for Israel in those circumstances. Sadly, very few students besides me did. I had similar experiences as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara and as a Ph.D. student at UCLA. Several of the UCs back then were also hotbeds of anti-Israel activity; they did not suddenly become hostile with the advent of the BDS movement.
One difference is that the BDS movement seeks to effect a change in university policy to the detriment of Israel. This certainly roils campuses where divestment resolutions arise, but keep in mind they have been introduced in only about 2% of American universities in the last 10 years and implemented in none.
Maltz quotes Doug Kahn, longtime executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater San Francisco, who told her "Divestment is not meant to inflict pain on Israel. Rather its goal is to shape the narrative and influence future leaders as they think about the conflict today."
I agree 100%. What Doug doesn't say, and I think he probably would if asked, is that Israel's detractors have had that goal from their first days on college campuses. The question is not their goal but their accomplishments. Is there any evidence that the anti-Israel campaigns of the 70s, 80s or 90s adversely affected American attitudes toward Israel? I don't know of any.
Many of my colleagues believe the situation today is different. I'm more skeptical; nevertheless, we do see some erosion of Israel's image among students, but this has not translated into any shift in support toward the Palestinians. Moreover, as I've also argued
elsewhere, polls over time show that younger people may not feel as close to Israel as their elders, but this changes as they age. There's no guarantee that trend will continue, which feeds our fears that maybe this generation will be different. Consequently, we have legitimate reasons to be concerned and; therefore, it is important to continue to fight against the anti-Semitic BDS movement and educate Jewish students.
One of the key findings of Maltz's visit to California was that "only a small fraction of Jewish and non-Jewish students -- including on those campuses known for being more politically active -- are actively engaged in the Israel debate." She notes that the infamous Students for Justice in Palestine, the driving force behind the anti-Semitic BDS movement, rarely has more than a dozen active students and many of them are Jews.
This is typical of "key findings" by journalists who believe that history begins with their arrival on the scene. As I noted earlier, activists have long represented a tiny fraction of students (the Vietnam period was unique). She seems surprised that pro-Israel groups she encountered did not have more than one or two dozen members. She could have saved herself a trip by reading my column (October 15, 2009) on the "rule of 20," which says that no matter how many Jews are on campus, you'll rarely get more than 20 to become active. There is also nothing new about Jews being heavily involved in the anti-Israel groups.
Moreover, since she focused on the politicized campuses in California, Maltz creates a misleading impression of the climate around the country. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of campuses are completely apathetic and there is little or no pro- or anti-Israel activity.
Maltz mentions one case of anti-Israel aggression, the shouting down of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University, which is used by the more fearful members of the community as evidence of the nationwide hostility toward Israel on campus. This was a terrible incident, made worse by the inadequate response of the university, but it was not typical of the experience of pro-Israel speakers. People also like to cite the time Ambassador Michael Oren was shouted down at UC Irvine or Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking at Concordia. There are a handful of other incidents each year, but these are the ones mentioned most frequently. For perspective consider that the UCI incident occurred six years ago and was not repeated at any of the other campuses Oren addressed. Even more extreme is the resort to referencing the Concordia example, which happened nearly 14 years ago. These are the exceptions to how pro-Israel speakers are treated, not the rule.
After 40 years on the UCLA campus, Rabbi Seidler-Feller has a historical perspective. Chaim told Maltz that what is new today is the refusal of Israel's detractors to talk to pro-Israel students. "That form of delegitimization didn't exist before," he said, "and it's turned this into a dirty war."
Chaim made two other good points about the change in campus dynamics. First, Israel's detractors believe they can say whatever they want because Jews oppressed them, while Jews aren't allowed to say anything. "And whatever you [Jews] say about our suffering is not welcome, not legitimate and not sincere."
This is a reflection of the McCarthy syndrome that has infected America in which people who have anti-Israel opinions believe they are entitled to express them and anyone who disagrees is engaged in McCarthyism.
Chaim's second point was also on target. He noted that Jewish groups today have a much more difficult time forming coalitions with other minority groups. Instead, he observed, "these former allies, together with their new Palestinian partners, are ganging up on the Israel-supporting Jews." He adds that "in the process of becoming Americanized, Jews have become whites, and they've lost their sense of seeing themselves as a minority."
I think he's partly correct about Jews' sense of being a minority. Jews are more schizophrenic because of their history of persecution. The tremendous success of the Jewish community in America has translated into a greater feeling of being part of the majority, while simultaneously feeling insecure and recognizing that despite our achievements, our numbers leave us a minority. The bigger change, I'd suggest, is that other minorities no longer view Jews as a minority with similar interests; hence, it is today's perceived underdogs and victims, such as the Palestinians, that attract the sympathy of most campus political and ethnic organizations.
Even these observations are not universal. Other campuses offer hope that not all is lost. Take, for example, the University of Miami, where Hillel hosted "Peace in the Middle East" in April and attracted more than 200 Jewish and non-Jewish students for a festival in which the pro-Israel student group partnered with the Muslim, Saudi and Armenian student groups.
One other point made in Maltz's piece suggests that campus organizations are too right-wing to resonate with students who are predominantly liberal democrats. I agree that we need more liberal Zionist voices to engage students because they can speak the language of human rights and progressivism in a way conservatives cannot. They can also express criticism, but do so in a way that makes clear they are Zionists who believe in a strong, democratic Israel.
Some believe that J Street U provides this type of message; however, the leaders of the "grownup" J Street have staked out so many positions at odds with the majority of American Jews and Israelis that they have become lepers for much of the Jewish community. It is unfortunate that many J Street students are tarred by the same brush because many are committed to Israel and would benefit from "wrestling with Israel" in a room full of knowledgeable pro-Israel students and professionals.
The liberal tilt on campus does not mean that other organizations are ineffective. Maltz takes pot shots at StandwithUs, for example, which is one of the fastest growing, best organized and effectual campus groups. If you take the whole alphabet soup of pro-Israel campus organizations, from AIPAC to ZOA, you will find a wide spectrum of views and opportunities for students to become a part of the conversation about Israel. Jews are not turning off to Israel, but, other than Birthright, we still haven't discovered the most effective approaches to turn them on.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.