|Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem|
Today’s campus activists win friends, not arguments
By DAVID BERNSTEIN
Today’s campus activists are winning friends, not arguments, which turns out to be much more effective than the arguments I made in my college days.
When I was 19, on my return trip home from a year studying in Israel, I decided
to become a pro- Israel campus activist. I wanted to share my passion for the
Jewish state with other students. A few months later, I became the chair of the
pro-Israel group at Ohio State.
I immediately started reading “Myths and
Facts” on the Arab-Israel conflict, the then AIPAC-produced bible on responding
to misinformation about Israel. I committed to memory every detail of every war,
began debating Palestinian campus activists, and brought pro-Israel speakers to
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to do this work for a living.
Twenty-five years later, with nearly two decades of experience in Israel
advocacy under my belt, I took the reins of The David Project, an organization
that works to shape campus discourse on Israel.
When I was a campus
activist, the purpose of pro-Israel advocacy was to win an argument with
Israel’s detractors. The campus discussion on Israel was just one of numerous
hotly debated issues at that time. Students of the late 1980s might have been
less ideologically inclined than their civil rights generation parents, but were
far more so, I later learned, than the college students of today.
first took the job at The David Project, a seasoned Hillel director pulled me
into his office and told me that “the one thing you need to know about the
students is that they don’t like to judge others or condemn. It’s a live and let
live generation.” Today’s students, he related, are less argumentative than
students of the past.
Last summer, I had lunch with two top pro-Israel
student activists who attend different Ivy League schools. “How would you
describe the intellectual climate on your campuses?” I asked.
answered, “we don’t really have one” and the other responded, “we sort of have
one, and it’s left-leaning.”
It’s not that today’s students don’t care
about issues – they do – it’s that they don’t subscribe to a single ideology
that purports to explain all of reality and are largely averse to conflict. I
rarely meet an American Jewish student leader interested in doing serious
Many are turned off to it.
On a recent visit
to a campus known for being a hotbed of political activity, one pro-Israel
student leader told me that an annual event on campus almost always produces a
verbal collision between a handful of strident supporters of Israel and a group
of anti-Israel detractors. He said the spectacle alienates even many Zionist
students, not to mention non-Jewish students, who might be otherwise open to a
more sympathetic view of Israel.
This revulsion for impassioned debate
understandably troubles some old-timers in the pro- Israel community. They can’t
understand why pro-Israel students don’t stand up and fight against
confrontational radical left-wing and Arab students. They see the pro-Israel
students’ less combative outlook as a sign of weakness.
But the students’
lack of ideological fervor should not be mistaken for ineffectiveness or a
dearth of passion.
For the first time ever, more young Jews have been to
Israel than their parents. The “Birthright pump” has generated unprecedented
attachment to Israel, and today’s students want to share the love, just as I did
when I came back from Israel in 1986. But this generation does not believe that
support for Israel demands doing intellectual battle. They aren’t about to
memorize Myths and Facts. And most are uninterested in going on the attack
against Israel’s adversaries, no matter how radical they are.
as fiery as their parents’ generation, today’s Jewish student leaders can be
passionate advocates eager to tell their own stories: why Israel matters to
them, and how complex and interesting and wonderful they find the Jewish state.
They want to spend more time in Israel; unprecedented numbers are going back for
seconds and thirds. While most have not become disenchanted with Israeli
government policies – again, they are not that ideological –neither do they feel
compelled to make the case for every policy or action.
This aversion to
argument and ideology, and penchant for personal narrative and relationship
building, is entirely in accord with the way the larger campus community engages
with issues. Pro-Israel students have a better sense of what sells on campus
than the older adults who worry about them. It’s time that we stop treating them
as proxies in a previous generation’s battle plans.
activists are winning friends, not arguments, which turns out to be much more
effective than the arguments I made in my college days.
The writer is
executive director of The David Project.