Sunday, January 22, 2012

Winning the Real Campus Battle in the US

Written by David Bernstein Thursday, 19 January 2012 12:54

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The Jewish Advocate

As the professional head of an organization that works to support Israel on campus, I am often asked by other Israel supporters if the pro-Israel community is winning or losing the battle on campus for Israel. My answer is it depends on which battle you are talking about.

We are winning one battle but losing the other.

Some in the pro-Israel community think we are losing the campus battle because no matter what we do they still hear the horror stories , from apartheid week to mock check points to blatant acts of harassment against Jewish students. They take these stories as evidence that nothing has improved and may have gotten even worse. They are both right and wrong.
Others, mainly professionals in pro-Israel organizations on campus, think we are winning the battle because not a single effort to boycott Israel at a significant university has come to fruition. They cite polls showing that the vast majority of students don’t buy the argument that Israel is an apartheid state. They are both right and wrong. The optimists are right that the pro-Israel community is winning the de-legitimization battle on campus. There are few signs that we are losing ground on the fundamental question of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. The fact that bad stuff happens on campus does not mean that these anti-Israel activities are accomplishing their goals. In many ways they are not.

The pessimists are right that there is nevertheless something amiss on the college campus. Israel is less popular among students than it is among the population at large. While students may not buy into the notion that Israel is an apartheid state or that the country has no right to exist, many do have serious questions about Israel’s peaceful intentions and about its human rights record. In this sense things have gotten worse.

The pro-Israel community’s battle in much of the rest of the world, where Israel is mostly unpopular, is to halt efforts to turn Israel into an international pariah akin to apartheid South Africa. Our battle in the US, however, where Israel is mostly popular, is to maintain long-term two party support. It’s not good enough that we stop the US from becoming anti-Israel. We have to make sure the US remains pro-Israel, which is a much taller task.

If the next generation of Americans, particularly on the center-left, is less supportive of the Jewish state than that of their parents, then the US is likely to be less favorably disposed to Israel tomorrow than it is today. Standing ovations in Congress for Israel’s Prime Minister, vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council, and, most importantly, financial and security support may become a thing of the past. There are signs, in fact, that this is already taking place. As Ben Smith wrote in an article for Politico last month, central institutions of the Democratic Party are now “challenging a bipartisan consensus on Israel and Palestine that has dominated American foreign policy for more than a decade.”

With such a drop off, the US will cease to protect Israel from the scourge of hostility we see nearly everywhere else. Absent an American buffer, the danger goes way up that the de-legitimizers will be able to turn Israel into an international outcast, decimating its sense of security and economic wellbeing. We can’t let that happen.

Given these challenges, our primary task on campus is not to fight the anti-Israel voices, but it is to build pro-Israel support. It is not to counter the negative but to promote the positive. It is not to teach young people how to debate but how to make friends.

In order to meet this challenge, we at The David Project have begun to change the mix of our education and training from reactive to proactive. It’s still important that students know the facts and can respond, but it’s more important that they understand who they’re trying to persuade and what’s most likely to work.

We are training students to map out their campuses and identify the sources of campus opinion. We are teaching them how to reach out to other student leaders and raise awareness of Israel’s achievements as a Jewish, democratic state.
In so doing, these future American leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will more likely see the value in the US-Israel relationship, and, when they take the helm, will be much more likely to continue two-party support.

While a few other pro-Israel organizations are making this crucial shift, many others are not. They still focus their energies on fighting a battle that we are winning rather than the more important battle that we are in peril of losing.

America is not in imminent danger of becoming anti-Israel but it may cease being pro-Israel, and that’s bad enough. It’s high time that we fight the right battle.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., Director
Communications Management Program
School of Management
(617) 521-2412
(617) 963-7405 Fax

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