Right of Reply: Pro-Israel campus activities have never been

This week, alumni of pro-Israel advocacy training and of Taglit-Birthright are organizing Israel Peace Week on more than 30 campuses.

Lamentations about an alleged lack of pro-Israel advocates on campus (“Similar but different,” February 21) miss the mark. In fact, the breadth and depth of pro-Israel campus activities have never been greater. Sadly, anti-Israel protests, biased faculty and feckless administrators still exist, but the pro-Israel campus community is fighting back in new and more effective ways.
While protests and counterprotests of the past may have felt gratifying to those eager to engage in verbal combat, the endlessly repeating cycle of shouting cast doubt that it ever convinced or engaged the uninvolved. Instead, in recent years the pro-Israel community’s efforts have focused on positive messages, constructive engagement and meaningful academic discourse on Israel.
As executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), comprised of 33 organizations dedicated to pro-Israel activism on college campuses, I am keenly aware of the contributions thousands of energetic, inspired and motivated university students are making to the pro-Israel agenda.
Students at the University of California, Irvine and elsewhere are taking strategic approaches, coordinating closely with campus officials, demanding and attending courses on Israel, creating Israel business clubs and participating in Israel study and travel. These students are thinking proactively about the long term by putting in place the infrastructure and allies needed to develop sustained pro-Israel support throughout the campus community, far beyond what any tit-for-tat demonstration could accomplish.
In this way, the pro-Israel community has become far more effective, avoiding the knee-jerk counterprotest to anti-Israel activity on campuses, depriving anti-Israel activists of the publicity they seek and instead focusing on programs that position Israel in a positive light.
THIS WEEK, for example, while anti-Israel forces retread the tired ritual of Israel Apartheid Week, alumni of pro-Israel advocacy training and of Taglit-Birthright Israel are organizing Israel Peace Week on more than 30 campuses to highlight Israel’s historic quest for peace with its neighbors. Disinterested in battling those anti-Israel forces whose minds are beyond changing, these students have focused instead on the rest of their peers. In testament to their approach, the initiative has attracted more than 3,000 Facebook supporters in less than three weeks.
In addition, while attention is naturally drawn to what takes place on campuses outside the classroom, a more complete understanding of Israel’s place in universities shows that inside the classroom, students and professors are voting with their feet in demanding more opportunities to study about Israel. A recent study commissioned by the Schusterman Foundation showed a 70 percent growth over the past three years in courses focusing specifically on Israel at leading US universities.
Better yet, these courses cover a breadth of topics that show Israel as a culture, as a society, as a government – as something far more than a party to a conflict. Who are among those students thought to be driving the demand? None other than returning birthright israel participants, who are coming home hungry for more opportunities to channel their newfound excitement into strengthened engagement with Israel.
Indeed, while Birthright Israel is clearly not an advocacy organization, its alumni return to strengthen the work of virtually all the ICC’s 33 member organizations. More than 50% of the participants in the ICC’s Israel Amplified advocacy program are Birthright Israel alumni, and professionals across the pro-Israel community confirm similar trends. At the University of California, Irvine, for example, the vast majority of the Anteaters for Israel – its pro-Israel student group – are Birthright alumni, including most of its leadership board. These students were among those who worked with the campus administration to ensure a strong response to any attempt to suppress Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s right to speak. As a result, the police arrested 11 protesters, and the community as a whole rightly understood that the protesters’ behavior threatened the bedrock principles of the free interchange of ideas on which academic integrity and democratic discourse rely.
Birthright Israel provides an entry point for the unaffiliated to explore their relationship with Israel – a relationship that can only blossom into advocacy if given that initial opportunity to engage as well as ongoing opportunities to learn.
Many challenges face the pro-Israel campus community. But a suggestionthat Birthright Israel or pro-Israel programs fail to inspire effectivepro-Israel advocacy is not consistent with reality.
The writer is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.