This academic year’s war for and against Israel on campus

"We are losing, and I believe it’s because we have become our own worst enemy in fighting among ourselves and not presenting ourselves as a unified force."

The campus of Rutgers University, one of many places Hillel maintains a chapter. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The campus of Rutgers University, one of many places Hillel maintains a chapter.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What a year it’s been on campus in the war for and against Israel on campus. Things are heating up on American campuses in a way we haven’t seen since the second intifada.
• Three American and one international academic associations have developed a foreign policy for their association either to boycott Israeli scholars or academic institutions (with several more societies contemplating such actions this Spring).
• Hillel’s new president, Eric Fingerhut, clarifying Hillel’s policies about what political programming is not acceptable in Hillel facilities caused significant dissension and rebellion at a number of campuses.
• 250 of American’s nearly 4,000 college and university presidents condemned academic boycott resolutions to one degree or another, while faculty held closed “academic conferences” on some of those very same campuses to try to plan and spread those actions to vulnerable and receptive academic colleagues around the globe.
• Legislation is pending in the Congress and in several state legislatures to penalize academics and universities that participate in academic boycotts with both acceptance and rejection by Israel advocacy and other groups, both major and minor.
• “Big Tent” academic approaches to difficult discussions are being decried and thwarted by extremist line-drawing, name-calling academics and polemicists with PhDs, from both the Left and the Right.
• Academics and polemicists of all stripes are claiming that academic boycotts and efforts to resist academic boycotts are threats to academic freedom.
The list goes on, and will develop radically and exponentially as we head into Spring Break toward the end of the academic year since we can predict that the war will heat up between the end of Spring Break and before finals, as it always does on campus.
These developments point to the fact that the Jewish community has never been more heatedly divided in facing significant intellectual and academic threats to the Jewish people, Judaism and Israel and that we really need to have some serious discussions among ourselves about unified approaches to these existential threats.
As a diverse, but distinct multicultural minority not just in this country, but in the world, we do not have the luxury of having this level of intensity of fighting among ourselves, as we do viciously (let’s face it) to claim who knows what’s best for us all. We all want our own way and believe that by lending our name and perhaps a few dollars (and not even always that), our opinions are what’s right for everyone.
I have heard my colleagues say things to the effect that if we discuss another’s view point, we are recognizing it and that is giving it legitimacy, so if we don’t discuss it we don’t have to deal with it. What incredibly myopic thinking for such “intelligent” people. Then there are others who feel that by labeling our enemies with such terms as “liberal” or “conservative,” “right wing” or “left wing” we will have taken care of deconstructing them and winning for our side. What foolishness and lazy thinking.
I have fought long and hard for Israel on campus, I’ve won some and I’ve lost some, but unlike some of my colleagues who believe if they simply say the same things long enough eventually they will prevail, I’ve learned from my mistakes and believe we need to fall back as a collective community and restrategize.
If we are going to reclaim the narrative on campus we must give serious attention to:
1) Promoting and advancing the “difficult conversations” that are necessary to hear and recognize the positions of those who disagree with us, and not just speak to our own choirs. Where that happens on campus is important and I believe it needs to happen in “neutral territory” or in a place that can be arranged that different factions agree to respect and adhere to the rules and culture of the sponsoring group, whether they agree with them or not. We need to reach out to the “others” to have these conversations and then we can criticize and moan and groan if they decline or won’t accept.
2) We must be civil and respectful among ourselves.
Articles by colleagues and former colleagues this past year have, in my estimation, further fractionalized our community with personal attacks on members of the same team and I have said so in social media informally and now so state publicly.
That needs to happen. Remember, a terrorist bomb in a Jewish setting really doesn’t differentiate as to whether you are for or against the boycott; it is simply meant for you as a Jew.
What I often refer to as the Jewish organization circular firing squad appears to be firing at anyone it either doesn’t understand or with whom it may disagree or feel it is in competition with for ever-decreasing resources, and is doing it both publicly and privately. When we forget our common enemies and do this among ourselves, we are losing precious ground in our collective right for self-determination as a people, including the right to argue among ourselves.
3) I am recommending that we can argue and try to bump each other off as much as we would like, but try to do it behind closed doors and then publicly come out with unified common-ground answers as a disciplined force at war with a common enemy, those who would extinguish Israel’s existence through boycott, divestments and sanctions, historical revisionism, intellectual dishonesty, well-financed governmental and religious incitement and terrorist and military aggression.
Our open wars and petty fights fractionalize us in ways from which we may not recover, which will result in our losing many of the gains we have recovered since the Shoah when many lost everything and more. It is easy to forget when you are comfortable.
We must never again be lulled into a false sense of security that our individual world view is shared by everyone, when in fact there are still forces that see us as children of “apes and pigs” and less than human with a need to be driven to the sea, or as soldiers from the Empire of Darkness Goliaths to the Palestinian Davids, that need to be overthrown and driven into the sea.
I am not asking people to abandon their politics or principles, but what I am doing is asking our own community to quickly have the “difficult discussions” to find common ground with respect for one another, even those with whom you disagree. We can yell and scream, name-call and brand folks behind closed doors, but when we come out, our generals need to be united and our troops disciplined or we are going to lose the war on campus.
We are losing now, friends, and I believe it’s because we have become our own worst enemy in fighting among ourselves and not presenting ourselves as a unified force, as a people with a diverse understanding of the situation, the world and the resolution of the problems confronting us. I am sure there will be those who will criticize me from many different directions publicly and privately, and I suggest that is much easier to do that to give serious consideration to my observations and recommendations. It is much easier to take a potshot at the messenger and even ignore him, but it doesn’t make what I am saying invalid and not worth the effort.
The author is Steering Committee coordinator of the International Grassroots Faculty for Academic Freedom and Integrity, a retired counselor and psychologist educator, and co-founder and president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.