Like the myth of a golden age for Jews under Muslim rule in Spain, many Jews think nostalgically about campus life before the “occupation” and the torrent of biased media coverage when Israel was viewed as David rather than Goliath and universities were not battlegrounds between partisans. On some campuses, this may have been true, but, as early as 1955, Eleanor Roosevelt observed that “Arab propaganda on American college campuses across the country is beyond the wildest imagination.”
In 1952, before AIPAC or any of today’s student organizations were established, the Organization of Arab Students (OAS) was formed to preach the pan-Arab views of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. After the 1967 humiliation of Nasser’s forces; however, the students began to identify more with liberation movements and sought to build alliances with the antiwar American left and radical African-Americans. The OAS also sided with Communist and Third World states that supported the Arab position.
Already by 1969, AIPAC reported that most American students had no interest in the Middle East, but the impact of Arab propaganda still was a problem. Recognizing the sensitivity of criticizing Jews, they were already drawing distinctions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and, decades before Gaza, the detractors sought to tarnish Israel’s image by “repeated accusations of unspeakable brutality.” Likewise, before Israel festivals of hate comparing Israel to South Africa, “Palestine Weeks” were “standard propaganda fare” on campuses such as Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard and Colorado. The Israel deniers were already targeting liberal students and AIPAC lamented that Jewish students were not “sufficiently versed in Middle East history to distinguish between truth and falsehood and to reply to the latter.”
With the ascendancy of the PLO, the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), a student arm of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council, became the principal Arab organization on American campuses, advancing the PLO’s cause by sponsoring speaking tours by anti-Israel speakers and organizing protests and other activities.
These groups were also comprised mainly, if not wholly, of Arab students and had the backing of Arab governments or, in the case of GUPS, the PLO. The Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), for example, was co-founded by Edward Said, and received funding from Arab governments and ARAMCO. AAUG advertised itself as an educational and cultural organization, but was one of the most militantly anti-Israel groups.
Perhaps the most militant group at this time was the Muslim Student Association (MSA), founded in 1962-63 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood meeting at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with the aim of spreading the Brotherhood’s militant brand of Islam to students. Many young Arab Muslims left the secular, political groups and joined the MSA where the antagonism toward Jews and Israel was rooted in their interpretation of Islam.
MSA chapters are still found on many campuses, but, with only a few exceptions, the group has become more interested in theology than politics. Today, MSAs differ from campus to campus and, in some cases, MSA members and Jewish students have good relationships. Most Muslims on campus don’t join the MSA, but those that do seem less radical than in the past. Rather than rallying against Israel over Gaza, for example, MSAs are focusing on the observance of Eid al-Adha, the festival commemorating Ibrahim’s devotion and willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Still, some chapters, such as the one at UC Irvine responsible for shouting down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and roiling that campus with its vitriol, remain true to the MSA’s original mission.
Students for Justice in Palestine is now the dominant anti-Israel voice on most of the 153 U.S. campuses where it has a presence. Since 2011, the group has held national conferences, which attract a few hundred students, but SJP remains a locally-based group. Though the number of campuses where SJP has chapters may sound impressive, most have few members, limited resources and are largely inactive. Or course, the campuses that get publicity are the exceptions where SJPs have promoted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, brought anti-Israel speakers and films to campus, created an uncomfortable atmosphere for Jewish students and stoked intolerance and hostility.
SJPs operation pales in comparison to the Organization of Arab Students (OAS), which at one time had 1,000 national members who paid $7.00 annually to the national organization, which was based in on Broadway. Another 7,000 students were members of more than 100 chapters in the United States and Canada.
Jews play a prominent, if not a leading role, in many SJPs. This is not surprising given that Jewish students are often among the most vocal critics of Israel on campus. In the past, Jews of this ilk would have operated within Jewish organizations that collaborated with other detractors. Today, however, no significant anti-Israel Jewish groups exist on campus (unless you consider J Street anti-Israel).
The biggest difference between the old days and now is the investments that have been made in supporting pro-Israel students. A plethora of organizations work on campuses across the country and bring significant resources to the table. They are backed by local community and national organizations that add further credibility, cash and clout. It is not the Israel deniers that are well-organized, funded and networked; it is the pro-Israel students that hold those cards.
In 1982, I used to sit alone at a table in Sproul Plaza at Berkeley with an Israeli flag and information about Israel. Students protesting the Lebanon War and castigating Israel marched in front of me daily and, at the next table, the MSA had a sign that said Zionism = Racism and distributed highlights of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Those were not the good old days. Despite the problems that do exist, this is the golden age for Jewish students in America.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine and The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.