Myths and Facts About American Campuses: #3 College students care about Middle East issues

Every summer, campus organizations steel themselves for what they expect to be a yearlong campaign by Israel deniers to condemn Israel for real and imagined faults, promote boycotts and divestment and spread propaganda. Each year the challenge is viewed a little differently, usually with the expectation the situation will be worse than the year before, but over the last several years, the reality has been that, with the exception of roughly two dozen campuses (usually the same ones each year), the campuses have been placid. This year the great fear was that the Gaza War would be an issue, but, to this point it has not.


One reason for the lack of activity thus far is the campus calendar, which usually mitigates against major anti-Israel campaigns before the winter. In the fall, students are just arriving at school; some are freshmen trying to find their way in a new world. Student organizations do not meet during the summer, and the membership changes each year as a result of graduation, attrition and changing student interests. Consequently, most of the organizations (including pro-Israel ones) spend the first weeks of school getting organized, holding introductory meetings, recruiting members and raising money.


Both Israel deniers and Israel’s supporters also face the challenge of arousing their politically apathetic classmates who comprise most of the student body. Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia, who has written three books on different generations’ behaviors and beliefs, says that students today are pragmatic; most do not go to college to expand their horizons and learn more about the world. Their principal motivation is to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to get a job and earn money. Therefore, propaganda passes them by; they are more likely to keep their heads down and ignore the guerilla theater, rallies and walls Israel deniers place in their path and rush off to the library or class to ensure their grades will get them a good job or acceptance to graduate school.


When Harvard asked 18-29 year-olds what issue most concerned them, jobs and health care were their top choices (11%), followed by education (7%). Foreign affairs and budget/government spending were next on the list with only 6% identifying them as their main worry.


As the AICE/TIP poll of students and other surveys have documented, most students know very little about Middle East issues, and care even less. To the extent they express an opinion, they support Israel and have little sympathy for the Palestinians.


Beyond lack of interest, we have also seen a shift in emphasis by many chapters of the Muslim Student Association, which, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, was once the most virulently anti-Israel group on campus. In the last two years however, many MSAs have been preoccupied with religious observances of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. This is a continuation of a trend where Muslim student organizations engage in less political activism and focus more on their faith.


These factors have mitigated against a serious campaign based on the Gaza War. You can still find Facebook entries pointing to videos and articles criticizing Israel, but this propaganda effort has been directed primarily at fellow members of the anti-Israel choir rather than the campus at-large.


The Gaza War has also been a non-issue because it began and ended before school started. Students without a particular interest in the Middle East were working, playing, studying and paying little attention to the news. If the war was ongoing then the situation might be different because detractors could point to real-time issues, but now it is already ancient history.


Curiously, the detractors have also directed their energy in an entirely different direction, namely, Ferguson, Missouri. Many of the anti-Israel activists have been railing about the situation there and participating in protests in a transparent and futile effort to draw some analogy between the victimization of an African American and the Palestinians. They may also hope to form alliances with African American students angered by Ferguson, but such a temporary coalition will not necessarily translate into African American support for an anti-Israel agenda.


Students will get agitated about tuition increases, but are far less concerned with issues beyond the campus. They do want to make a difference in the world, but prefer to do it on a micro level, by getting their hands dirty and actively engaging in public service. They care less about issues beyond their control, such as the future of the Middle East. The bad news is that many Jewish students are also apathetic. The good news is the Israel deniers have a very small audience.


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.