(By Mitchell Bard)One disturbing finding in a series of focus groups sponsored by The Israel Project and the David Project was that American students “show a keen awareness of the pro-Palestinian organizations…and students are able to reference events and actions sponsored or undertaken recently by these groups – while Israeli groups seem invisible.” The Jewish community has a similar perception that campuses are awash with anti-Israel activity while Jewish students remain passive, which has led many people to believe Israel’s battle to win young hearts and minds is being lost.
As I’ve frequently written, however, the reality is quite different. The overwhelming majority of campuses are, if anything, politically apathetic rather than concerned with, or hostile toward Israel. The handful of troublesome campuses, and it is no more than a handful, are atypical hotbeds of political activism that have long been known for not only agitation on Middle East issues but other controversial matters.
One simple solution to the problem discovered by the focus groups is to adopt the strategy I’ve outlined here before of beating the drum for Israel. By this I mean having a steady drumbeat of pro-Israel activity on campus that gives the impression that there is always something going on related to Israel; that it is cool and safe to discuss Israel, and that friends of Israel are setting the campus agenda rather than allowing Israel’s detractors to do so.
Toward that end, I would propose one short-term local approach and one long-term national (ideally international) strategy.
One simple short-term tactic is for pro-Israel students to put up an Israeli flag in a prominent place on campus every day. Students can hand out material, falafel, do anything Israel-related but the key is showing the flag to establish that spot as a kind of Israeli outpost on campus. After a while, the campus community should become comfortable and familiar with the ongoing Israel presence and only the most oblivious students would then answer they aren’t aware of anything pro-Israel on their campus.
A more substantive approach is to create an Israel calendar to shape programming on campuses each month. Today, for example, the United States commemorates Black History in February, Women’s History in March, etc. A calendar that focuses on a different aspect of Israeli history, society or culture would be a great way to inspire programming and unify the messages and activities of students and communities around the world.
Programming need not be restricted to the month’s theme, but if students knew, for example, that every October was Israel Diversity Month they could prepare programs that highlight the various communities in Israel. They would do so knowing that their peers at campuses around the country were doing the same thing at the same time. Related materials could be part of those Israel outposts created on the campus green and the basis for programs, posters, and exhibits in Jewish studies departments and Hillels. Ideally, the community will also follow the calendar and have its own events and materials at JCCs, synagogues and other Jewish institutions. If international organizations join in, the focus on Israel could be global. Students at Berkeley, Cambridge and Heidelberg could all be presenting programs on the same theme of the month.
Students are very busy and the amount of activity may vary from campus to campus and month to month, but if there is only one program or a display somewhere on campus, the Israel flag will symbolically be planted and greater awareness of Israel created.
The calendar would have multiple benefits. First, it gives the pro-Israel community a clear area of focus each month and time to plan in advance. It will create opportunities for cooperation and collaboration across campuses, communities and countries. Each month’s theme will be rooted in a positive aspect of Israeli life. This does not mean all programming and material has to be uncritical, but it would allow Israel’s supporters to set the agenda. By choosing a range of aspects of Israeli society for the calendar it will be possible to show Israel as a multifaceted nation and counter negative media images and the tendency to see Israel solely through the prism of conflict.
Ideally, everyone can agree on 12 general themes related to Israel. They need not be static if it seems that a particular month’s theme does not resonate or some better idea is proposed. Here are my suggestions for the International Israel Calendar:
January - Israel-American Friendship Month: A month highlighting the history, depth and breadth of the US-Israel relationship. Jews in other countries can substitute their nation’s history.
February - Israel Diversity Month: Focus could be on various communities in Israel and minorities.
March - Israel Peace Month: This is the month of the anniversary of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and might highlight the history of Israel’s efforts to achieve peace.
April - Israel Environment Month: Earth Day is celebrated in April and this would be a good month to discuss various environmental issues in Israel, such as drip irrigation, desalination, and solar energy as well as some of the challenges Israel faces.
May - Israel Independence Month: Rather than just one day to celebrate Israeli independence, why not do it for the entire month?
June - Israel Arts Month: This could become the month to focus on Israeli art, music, film and dance.
July - Israel Social Justice Month: Israel is not a perfect society and it suffers from the same social challenges as other countries, including poverty, crime and discrimination. In addition to discussing the problems, programs can focus on innovative ways Israel is trying to solve them.
August – Israel History Month: Given the widespread ignorance of Israeli history, this month could focus on the story of Israel’s establishment, ingathering of the exiles and formative years.
September - Israel Technology Month: Israel is a leader in medical, computer, military and other forms of technology that benefit not only Israelis but the entire world.
October - Israel Book Month: October and November are the time of Jewish book festivals in the United States and the month can also focus on books about Israel and by Israelis.
November - Israel Democracy Month: November is the month for elections in the United States so it is a good time to discuss various aspects of Israeli democracy.
December - Israel Religious Freedom Month: December is a month of religious holidays and a good opportunity to focus on the freedom to worship in Israel and the different faith communities as well as the diversity among Jews in Israel.
These are just a few suggestions and the themes could be moved to different months. Since students are away during summer months, maybe those could be used for subjects that have less resonance on campus. Whatever the final calendar looks like, however, it will present a great opportunity for the people who love Israel to unite around particular positive themes each month, to combat the de-legitimizers who are trying to paint Israel in a negative light, and to educate people about the real Israel.