Today’s campus activists win friends, not arguments

Today’s campus activists are winning friends, not arguments, which turns out to be much more effective than the arguments I made in my college days.

Pro-Israel demonstrators 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Pro-Israel demonstrators 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When I was 19, on my return trip home from a year studying in Israel, I decided to become a pro- Israel campus activist. I wanted to share my passion for the Jewish state with other students. A few months later, I became the chair of the pro-Israel group at Ohio State.
I immediately started reading “Myths and Facts” on the Arab-Israel conflict, the then AIPAC-produced bible on responding to misinformation about Israel. I committed to memory every detail of every war, began debating Palestinian campus activists, and brought pro-Israel speakers to campus.
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to do this work for a living. Twenty-five years later, with nearly two decades of experience in Israel advocacy under my belt, I took the reins of The David Project, an organization that works to shape campus discourse on Israel.
When I was a campus activist, the purpose of pro-Israel advocacy was to win an argument with Israel’s detractors. The campus discussion on Israel was just one of numerous hotly debated issues at that time. Students of the late 1980s might have been less ideologically inclined than their civil rights generation parents, but were far more so, I later learned, than the college students of today.
When I first took the job at The David Project, a seasoned Hillel director pulled me into his office and told me that “the one thing you need to know about the students is that they don’t like to judge others or condemn. It’s a live and let live generation.” Today’s students, he related, are less argumentative than students of the past.
Last summer, I had lunch with two top pro-Israel student activists who attend different Ivy League schools. “How would you describe the intellectual climate on your campuses?” I asked.
One answered, “we don’t really have one” and the other responded, “we sort of have one, and it’s left-leaning.”
It’s not that today’s students don’t care about issues – they do – it’s that they don’t subscribe to a single ideology that purports to explain all of reality and are largely averse to conflict. I rarely meet an American Jewish student leader interested in doing serious intellectual combat.
Many are turned off to it.
On a recent visit to a campus known for being a hotbed of political activity, one pro-Israel student leader told me that an annual event on campus almost always produces a verbal collision between a handful of strident supporters of Israel and a group of anti-Israel detractors. He said the spectacle alienates even many Zionist students, not to mention non-Jewish students, who might be otherwise open to a more sympathetic view of Israel.
This revulsion for impassioned debate understandably troubles some old-timers in the pro- Israel community. They can’t understand why pro-Israel students don’t stand up and fight against confrontational radical left-wing and Arab students. They see the pro-Israel students’ less combative outlook as a sign of weakness.
But the students’ lack of ideological fervor should not be mistaken for ineffectiveness or a dearth of passion.
For the first time ever, more young Jews have been to Israel than their parents. The “Birthright pump” has generated unprecedented attachment to Israel, and today’s students want to share the love, just as I did when I came back from Israel in 1986. But this generation does not believe that support for Israel demands doing intellectual battle. They aren’t about to memorize Myths and Facts. And most are uninterested in going on the attack against Israel’s adversaries, no matter how radical they are.
While not as fiery as their parents’ generation, today’s Jewish student leaders can be passionate advocates eager to tell their own stories: why Israel matters to them, and how complex and interesting and wonderful they find the Jewish state. They want to spend more time in Israel; unprecedented numbers are going back for seconds and thirds. While most have not become disenchanted with Israeli government policies – again, they are not that ideological –neither do they feel compelled to make the case for every policy or action.
This aversion to argument and ideology, and penchant for personal narrative and relationship building, is entirely in accord with the way the larger campus community engages with issues. Pro-Israel students have a better sense of what sells on campus than the older adults who worry about them. It’s time that we stop treating them as proxies in a previous generation’s battle plans.
Today’s campus activists are winning friends, not arguments, which turns out to be much more effective than the arguments I made in my college days.
The writer is executive director of The David Project.