I am tired of hearing frustrated leftists dissatisfied with Israeli policy claim that young American Jews have turned away from Israel. Projecting their own views on our youth, they insist that young Jews want nothing to do with the Jewish establishment because it is unwilling to devote its resources to demonizing Israel and lobbying the U.S. government to punish Israel because the Israeli people and their democratically elected representatives aren’t interested in taking advice from American blowhards.
The data doesn’t support the argument that young Jews have turned on Israel and a record 4,000 voted with their feet by attending the AIPAC Policy Conference. In fact, I’m told, that number could have easily been doubled. What was equally if not more impressive is the composition of the student delegations: Students represented 635 campuses, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Christian-Centered Campuses, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Liberal Arts Colleges, as well as public and private high schools. AIPAC also recruited 300 Student Government Association Presidents, which is particularly important given that the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement focuses on persuading student governments to adopt resolutions calling on their universities to divest from Israel.
I have to give credit for the enormous success of the AIPAC student program to Jonathan Kessler, the dean of campus professionals, who has forgotten more about the campus than most of us ever knew. Jonathan has been at the forefront of at least two important changes in the approach to working with students on campus.
First, he was one of the first to shift the activist paradigm away from fighting every slight against Israel as if the Jewish state’s future was at stake. He has advocated an approach, which I have also promoted, that encourages students to calibrate their responses to Israel’s detractors based on the expected impact on campus. Students don’t have to protest everything and they should focus more attention on setting the campus agenda than reacting to provocations.
The second contribution Kessler has made has been to reach out to non-Jews. Yes, lots of organizations say they do it, but most have only started to engage groups other than African-Americans fairly recently. AIPAC, itself, lagged behind and the student program may have helped stimulate the rest of the organization to more aggressively court non-Jews, especially Hispanics. At the Policy Conference, 200 student leaders from the African American, Hispanic, and Christian communities were expected.
While AIPAC has been criticized, unfairly in my view, for partisanship, the student program has always attracted students from both parties. And though the Republicans can meet in a phone booth on many campuses, more than 100 national and state leaders of the College Democrats of America and College Republican National Committee attended the conference.
These college and high school students came to listen, learn and lobby and they did so with gusto. In fact, one of the best antidotes to Jewish apathy is to offer students an opportunity to experience the intensity and scope of the conference, and to see that even if they come from a small campus, or one besieged by Israel’s detractors, they are not alone.
AIPAC has also gradually gotten ahead of the curve in recognizing that for all the great work it does training college students, the key to preparing young people for campus challenges is to reach them when they are still in high school. Toward that end, more than 575 high school students from 145 public and private schools attended the Policy Conference.
For conference participants, the sight of so many young people is rejuvenating, inspiring and reassuring. For those of you who did not have the opportunity to come to Washington – and I encourage you all to come for an unforgettable experience – it is understandable if you are depressed reading the often hysterical descriptions of Jewish life on campus.
We have an impressive generation of Israel advocates in the pipeline who will continue the work of their parents and grandparents in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
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.