Addressing Anti-Israel Attitudes on Campus

The Kennedy School’s “One-State” conference provided only the latest reminder of the hostile on-campus attitude toward Israel. (Imagine the likelihood of any major campus hosting an allegedly academic conference ruminating about the destruction as a state of Iran, or Egypt, or Mexico.) In light of the conference and its controversy, it’s worth reviewing an excellent Tablet symposium, asking pro-Israel figures–mostly students, but also the David Project’s David Bernstein–along with a student representative of J Street about how to respond to the campus climate.

The symposium can be read in full here; I recommend it strongly. Two themes emerged the most strongly.

(1) If anything, students are more aggressive than non-campus figures about the need to confront anti-Israel biases on campus.

For instance, Bernstein (not unreasonably) cautioned about going
“negative,” arguing that “the best response to anti-Israelism on campus
is pro-Israelism,” since polling consistently demonstrates that
“Americans are more sympathetic to the Israelis (rather than to the
Palestinians).” He worried that “when we spend our energy responding to
anti-Israel accusations, we engage the battle on our adversaries’
terms–not ours. Further, by taking on the detractors, we help them get
more publicity than they could on their own and can end up sounding
shrill ourselves.” He recommended partnering with non-Jewish
organizations for smaller events, interesting business departments on
Israeli economic issues, and reaching out to key figures within the
student body (like student government leaders).

Bernstein conceded, however, that despite the general pro-Israel
atmosphere among the public and among most student bodies, “there may be
a more serious problem at elite colleges, where the discussion of
Israel is driven by a far-left and postmodern worldview, as well as by
radicalized Middle East study programs.” And it’s in this atmosphere
that most of the other students in the Tablet symposium operate.

Rachel Fish, a doctoral student in Israel Studies at Brandeis,
worried that “supporters of Israel on campus are simply silenced. They
correctly understand that if they stand up for Israel, they risk being
mocked, marginalized, subject to receiving lower grades, and perhaps
limiting their career opportunities.” Given that situation, Fish
suggested that the focus must be not on the students, but in confronting
“the structural elements of campus life–faculty, administration, and
funding sources, all of which have far greater power than students,”
with a goal of showing anti-Israel bias “to be the shameless hypocrisy
that it is.”

David Fine, a Columbia junior who is editor in chief of The Current,
similarly championed a more aggressive approach, urging pro-Israel
students to “sharpen our wits and confront those whose aim is the
destruction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” since the “best
that happens is that they reveal their ideologies for what they truly

And Gilad Wenig, an NYU senior, recalled a story of his directly
confronting a professor (after class) about her biased commentary on
Zionism–which ended in the professor backing down during the following
lecture and maintaining “an unbiased atmosphere” for the rest of the

(2) There are creative ways for liberal pro-Israel students to engage.

In his provocative essay, and in a statement that might capture the
sentiments of many left-leaning pro-Israel figures, Harvard student (and
former IDF soldier) Yoav Schaefer was blunt: “Let’s be honest, with the
current direction of Israeli politics, it is becoming increasingly
difficult to make the case for Israel on campus.”

But, Schaefer argued, the task of pro-Israel students needs to be
less on the specifics of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies but “to defend
Israel’s fundamental right to exist.” (Does anyone seriously believe the
general campus climate on Israel-related issues would be meaningfully
different if Tzipi Livni had been able to cobble together a coalition in
2009?) With that goal, Schaefer contended, relying on talking points
and “one-dimensional advocacy” are “counterproductive–uninformed
students see it as anti-intellectual and ideological spoon-feeding. Only
by discussing the fundamental meaning and purpose of Israel–not
defending the status-quo, but challenging students to build a more
perfect country that embodies the values of the Jewish people–can we
transform North American universities into mechanisms for positive

Schaefer’s essay showed that there’s no tension between a distaste
for the Netanyahu government and standing up for Israel on campus.
Contrast his arguments, however, with those of Logan Bayroff, the
president of J Street U National Student Board. Though the organization
describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” it is much more clearly the
latter than the former; in the past couple of days, J Street has
attracted considerable criticism for its false assertion that recent Israeli strikes on Gaza “have killed over a dozen Palestinian civilians,” the latest in a long line of J Street actions that suggested the organization sees its chief mission as criticizing the Israeli government.

In his essay, Bayroff criticized unnamed figures for a pattern of
“hastily label[ing] various activities as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic”;
he didn’t identify which “activities” had been so hastily labeled. He
conceded that there is an “uglier face of campus advocacy” on behalf a
pro-Palestinian viewpoint, but offered no guidance on whether these
“uglier” faces could be deemed anti-Semitic, or how students should
distinguish between these “uglier” voices and what he deems as an
appropriate “Palestinian narrative.” His essay discussed two specific
initiatives run by J Street U, both of which appeared to primarily focus
on criticism of Israeli security policies.

As with its parent organization in the national pro-Israel dialogue, J
Street U doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on campus. I suppose
we should be grateful.

KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY
Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is
co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of
“Until Proven Innocent.”


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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