Pro-Israel activists battle apathy on campuses

Although political apathy on campuses can deter students from Israel engagement, persistent dedication can lead to success.

Jewish students participate in program 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish students participate in program 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Political apathy and disengagement on the part of many college students has led some to dub them the "Apathetic Generation.” This reality poses serious challenges for student Israel activists, as previously reported in ICB. But campus apathy need not prevent Israel activists from achieving their goals.
Indeed, campus activists have found creative ways to combat apathy and engage a seemingly uninterested student body.
Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) senior Alexis Ingram said, “The Hillel at SLC has a bunch of events focusing on the technological, medical and academic achievements of Israel as a nation but they rarely discuss the Israeli military, Israeli-Palestinian issues or anything political in relation to Israel.”
While closing the doors to political discussion in order to engage students in Israeli culture can advance the battle against apathy, it begs the question of how to involve students in political discussion and activism.
Jake Kohn, chair of Indiana University’s Indiana Israel Public Affairs Committee (IIPAC), said the support of the university’s student government is crucial to encourage college students to take interest in issues concerning Israel.
“I feel like there could be more student engagement," Kohn said, "but we reach out to IUSA, the student body government, and they usually show up because the whole point is to create these connections with them so they can stand with us for Israel.”
Other activists report that their student governments have been less willing to engage in constructive discussion about Israel. At Arizona State University (ASU), senior Melissa Rauch, president of Sun Devils for Israel (SDI), said that the Undergraduate Student Senate has been known to take a stance against Israel, and even attempted to pass a bill calling for divestment from companies that conduct business with the Israel Defense Forces last year.
Because the student leaders of SDI could not rely on the student body to speak out against this bill, they decided to appeal to professionals outside of the university.
“SDI worked with many outside organizations to help combat the bill that was being pushed through the Undergraduate Student Government Senate," Rauch stated. "We also received a letter from [Arizona] Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl that was sent directly to [ASU] President Michael Crow saying that they were extremely disappointed in the bill that was written up and that it was unacceptable.”
Because SDI student leaders have found it difficult to engage the students they feel would be natural Israel supporters, they have adopted a new approach: educating student leaders who can influence the student body.
Last year, SDI programmed with LGBTQ groups, human rights groups, African groups and the Greek community to educate student leaders about Israel's impact on their specific causes or interests.
“Everyone’s been learning a lot and student leaders have been eager to get involved,” Rauch said.
Like their peers at ASU, Pennsylvania State University students tend to show more interest in football games and the social scene than engaging in activism of any kind, let alone Israeli activism.
“Everyone just wants to exist in their Penn State bubble," said sophomore Melissa Sacks. "Not even the students from the Middle East want to bring up Middle Eastern affairs.”
While an active Students for Justice in Palestine group at Penn State competes for the attention of students, Sacks has found success reaching the campus community through campus media. After Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, visited Penn State last year, Sacks wrote a response to a controversial article in the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian. Sacks’ article spurred debate, but she was pleased to see students engaging in a conversation about Israel.
Following Oren's visit, Sacks founded Penn State Israel Alliance-Lions for Israel, gaining prominence after she was invited to discuss the new group on the campus television channel.
“People just needed to know that someone was out there who cares about Israel. Once you start leading the way, people will follow,” said Sacks.
According to campus activists, apathy is one of the major roadblocks for student activists for Israel, but passionate students offer their wisdom and stories of success.
“You have to make it a priority. You never know who is sitting next to you in class. These are the leaders of tomorrow,” Sacks said.
Like Sacks, ASU's Rauch emphasized the importance of student leaders sticking to their goals and not giving up on their vision.
“We are doing everything we can to work on increasing awareness among the student body," she concluded. "Hopefully this year will present a lot of opportunities to promote change [on] our campus. We have a plan to deliver our message to an apathetic campus through student leaders.”
Although political apathy on college campuses can deter students from their activism goals, leaders find that coalition building and persistent dedication can lead to successful Israel engagement.