Learning 2012’s lessons for Israel on US campuses

We must learn the lessons of 2012 and retain what works. With the stakes as high as they are likely to be in 2013, we cannot afford to forget again.

Pro-Israel students on US campus 521 (photo credit: Courtesy  JAFI)
Pro-Israel students on US campus 521
(photo credit: Courtesy JAFI)
With the prospect of a year ahead in 2013 unlike any we have ever witnessed, we in the American pro-Israel community have no time to lose to learn the lessons of 2012. Israel’s conflict with Hamas and the other militants of Gaza in November served as a dress rehearsal for what may come.
My work with American campuses provides a case study of the pro-Israel community’s response to these events, and some of the lessons are grim. In many ways, the pro-Israel campus community has never had more resources and more reach, including support for students from Jewish organizations such as Hillel, the Jewish Agency, Jewish federations, and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, as well as campus support from Israel-focused organizations such as StandWithUs, The David Project, Hasbara Fellowships, Christians United for Israel, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Project Interchange, AIPAC, the Israeli government, the Israeli university consortium, and more.
My own organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), works with these and many others to strengthen the pro-Israel campus community with training, resources, information-sharing and leadership.
Yet despite those considerable resources and efforts, anti-Israel activities on campus persist and deep divisions within the pro- Israel community continue to frustrate our ability to seize control of the campus agenda. It was discouraging to witness anti-Israel rallies, protests and other events on college campuses roughly quadruple in November, almost four years after the last sustained conflict in Israel and Gaza, and to see the pro- Israel community scrambling to respond, even in places that had seen consistent efforts by detractors in the recent past. Our community had forgotten lessons it had learned, often through bitter experience, just a few years ago.
On campus, part of that lost memory is cyclical: students graduate and move on, taking their knowledge and experience with them, and new student leaders must learn afresh. Sadly, turnover of professionals dealing with Israel on campus is high as well; few remain more than a few years, and in many cases, students remain on campus longer than the professionals.
But for all that the campuses experience rapid turnover, the off-campus pro-Israel community suffers from a lack of information-sharing and institutional memory as well; we, and the students and professionals we support, spend significant time teaching the off-campus community about effective Israel advocacy and engagement, often teaching the same lessons to new groups of community activists one year after the next.
Our community cannot afford to spend its time continually reinventing the wheel. It is both costly and damaging that we must relearn that effective advocacy occurs by establishing a proactive agenda and by nurturing positive, lasting relationships with decision-makers before crises emerge; neither should it be necessary to relearn that while public rallies and disputes may motivate our base, they alienate many or more, both within our base and in the audiences we hope to reach. On campus, new student leaders could be forgiven for failing to appreciate the lessons of the past; our broader community has no such excuse.
In the year ahead, Israel’s geopolitical realities will be uncertain.
With continued unrest in Egypt and Sinai, an unbowed and motivated Hamas in Gaza, potential instability in Jordan, an escalating civil war in Syria, increasing belligerency from Hezbollah, a Palestinian Authority desperate to reestablish diminishing relevance through international pressure and, not least, an Iranian regime continuing undeterred in its quest to obtain nuclear weapons capability, events in the Middle East in 2013 are likely to continue to wash over Israel and its allies like a tidal wave. We must quickly consolidate the lessons of this past year if we are to learn and improve from them.
We can be sure of a two things, on campus and elsewhere. First, Israel’s detractors will ride a venomous wave from the most recent conflict into the annual anti-Israel hate festivals of February and March. Second, the pro-Israel community will continue to have a pool of bright, talented, capable people, access to significant resources and, most importantly, the luxury of right on their side.
Applying that talent and those resources to best effect will require that we learn the lessons of 2012 and retain what works. With the stakes as high as they are likely to be in 2013, we cannot afford to forget again.
The writer is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive campus climate for Israel.