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WASHINGTON – Pushing back aggressively and publicly against Israel boycott and divestment efforts on college campuses can hurt the cause of pro-Israel activism more than help, according to a new report from The David Project.
The report described the biggest challenge facing pro- Israel advocates on US campuses as a pervasive negative view of Israel rather than the more extreme but marginal boycott and divestment (BDS) calls, and argued that dramatically countering BDS activity draws more unwanted attention to criticism that can hurt opinions toward the Jewish state.
“If you can keep away the press, and if you can keep away some of the most shrill voices in the Jewish community, you might be able to move students in a pro-Israel direction,” said David Bernstein, executive director of The David Project, a group dedicated to combating delegitimization of Israel on campuses, at a discussion about the report in Washington on Monday.
The report found that the BDS movement had been overwhelmingly unsuccessful, not leading to a single university boycott and only three campuses where student assembly resolutions supporting divestment had passed. The findings are based on non-scientific interviews of Jewish students, faculty and campus staff, as well as academic research and conversations with Israel advocacy professionals.
“Extreme anti-Israel efforts have an impact, but are unlikely to significantly shift campus opinion,” the report assessed. “Students, faculty and administration are often put off by the militant rhetoric of many anti-Israel groups.”
The report did point, however, to lower support for Israel among college students than the rest of the American population, and warned that bipartisan American support for the Jewish state could be threatened if large amounts of the public spend formative years in an environment where negative attitudes towards Israel predominate.
The report attributed the greater hostility to “longstanding campus trends unrelated specifically to Israel,” including the predominantly left orientation of college professors, the embrace of post-modernism and relativism and an open environment where outsiders can stage events.
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According to the report, some of these ingrained factors are shifting as the social sciences and humanities – where Israel-oriented content and activism is largely nurtured – lose ground in the academic world to hard sciences and business programs, where there are often pro-Israel students and professors focused on Israeli economic and technology successes.
In addition, the authors of what they called a strategy paper for the pro-Israel community encouraged Israel supporters to focus on building coalitions through decentralized networks with influential people on campus.
Exposing campus communities to diverse views on Israel could be one of the more effective ways to improve attitudes towards the nation and decrease the chance that the larger student body participates in anti-Israel activities.
Bernstein suggested chucking out “talking points” aimed at countering anti- Israel charges in favor of more focused programming and “conversation ideas,” since the type of relationship- building and networking widespread among today’s students “is not a 30- second endeavor; it’s a longterm endeavor.”
The report also found that most American campuses “are not hostile environments” for most Jewish students, though it did say that overt harassment of pro- Israel students was often not treated with the seriousness it deserved by university administration and faculty.
However, the report warned that efforts to invoke civil rights legislation could “create a campus backlash against Israel supporters that erodes, rather than enhances, the nation’s standing.”
Bernstein acknowledged that The David Project’s sponsorship of the report, which was certain to displease some pro-Israel activists, was somewhat akin to “Nixon going to China,” since his organization has been one of the most vocal in opposition of BDS efforts and has traditionally taken a strong public approach to countering delegitimization.
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