Aidan Fishman is a student of International Relations and Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto and the winner of HonestReporting’s inaugural Blankfeld Award for Quality Journalism.
For far too many people, any mention of the words “Israel” and “university campus” in close conjunction conjure up images of doom and gloom. University students are steadily growing hostile toward the Jewish State, and the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement is gaining credibility on campuses across the United States and Canada – or so we are led to believe.
In fact, the situation is not nearly so dire. There are many indications that the university anti-Israel movement is actually losing steam, due to both its inherent contradictions and the hard work of passionate Zionists on campus. Better yet, whether you’re a student, a parent or even a potential donor, standing up for Israel and for basic principles of equality and civility on campus is easier than you would expect.
In this piece, relying on both personal anecdotes and more formal North American studies, I’ll review three basic trends in the battle for Israel on our campuses.
1. The University is not Universal
Paradoxically, the first key thing to remember about defending Israel on campus is that it’s not as significant as you might expect. Universities have long ceased to be useful barometers of what average citizens, even well-educated average citizens, believe, think or vote. Most students come to university to explore their intellectual passions or simply acquire the degree(s) necessary for their dream job, not to become politically active or fight for social justice.
Since the 1960’s at least, North American campuses have been reliable strongholds of the far-left. A quick glance at any electoral map makes this obvious; college towns in the U.S. often deliver the Democratic votes necessary to swing a municipality, a congressional district, or even a state, while Canadian ridings with heavy student populations plump reliably for the NDP.
For whatever reason, the “Palestinian cause” has been the pet issue of the global far-left for decades now, giving anti-Israel activists a distinctive edge on campus as compared to the rest of the electorate. However, there’s nothing “progressive” about the anti-Semitism of Hamas or Hezbollah, or the suicide bombings that necessitated Israel’s security barrier. But the lack of a level playing field that favors anti-Israel forces is simply a fact of life that pro-Israel activists must accept.
This left-leaning bias has two key implications. Firstly, most student governments lean far to the left, even more so than the average student population. This renders them hostile to pro-Israel forces, who are generally wise to assume that their own elected representatives are working against them.
However, there is a more positive corollary to this unfortunate state of affairs. Since student governments are institutionally left-wing, and often feature extremely low turnout rates and even rigged elections, anti-Israel declarations on their behalf are essentially meaningless. For example, the University of Toronto’s Graduate Students Union recently passed a motion demanding that the administration divest from firms that support “Israeli war crimes”. The motion allegedly passed with “97% percent of students in favour” – greatly aided by the fact that the union never notified its members of the divisive resolution, meaning that no pro-Israel students even bothered to attend the union’s typically banal Annual General Meeting!
Clearly, this “great victory” for BDS does not truly reflect the views of U of T graduate students, let alone the student body as a whole. Only a few pro-Israel and anti-Israel partisans are aware that it occurred; evidently, the BDS ideological clique isn’t doing much to reach out to unaffiliated students.
The second critical implication of universities’ leftist tilt is the centrality of tailoring our pro-Israel message for this student audience. Most university students don’t give a fig that Jerusalem is the religious capital of the Jewish people, mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible – in fact, many would dismiss Israel altogether merely because one of its advocates made a religious argument. It is typically far more productive to highlight its role in advancing cellphone technology, its pioneering techniques of water conservation, and its relatively robust record on gay rights, women’s equality and ethno-religious minorities that puts its rivals to shame. Campus advocates need to reach students on their level, appealing to factors present in their everyday lives or favorable to them politically.
2. Every Campus is Different
Of course, there is an important caveat to all this talk of an inherently hostile university atmosphere – every campus is unique, and each demands a slightly different approach to Israel advocacy.
Take the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, for example. There, it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of students are already friends of the Jewish State; thus, local friends of Israel would spend their time galvanizing the pro-Israel community and encouraging them to donate to Zionist organizations and remember Israel at the ballot box, utilizing the same biblical arguments that are anathema to students at most Western universities.
Finer nuances between relatively similar campuses also effect our responses to anti-Israel activity. A few years ago, local anti-Israel activists erected an ersatz Israeli checkpoint outside a major student center of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. They then demanded students provide them with their student ID’s before entering the building seeking to emulate the “humiliation” inflicted upon West Bank Palestinians. Seeing that this tactic was effective, pro-Israel students at Queen’s hit back in ingenious fashion, popping balloons and throwing confetti at “the checkpoint” to simulate a Palestinian terrorist attack, demonstrating the sad necessity of Israeli security measures.
By contrast, when the local chapter of anti-Israel fanatics unveiled the same strategy outside Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, angry students simply pushed right past them, unwilling to waste their time on such chicanery.
Unfortunately, these variations between campuses tend to reduce the efficacy of continent-wide initiatives sponsored by groups like Hillel and B’nai B’rith. A great example of this phenomenon is the “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign, which tries to ameliorate Israel’s image on campus by highlighting the hip and “sexy” side of the Jewish State. While it has proved to be a roaring success at more party-oriented Canadian universities such as Western University and the University of British Columbia, it has been less successful at academic hot spots like the University of Toronto. In Canada’s largest city, students are more likely to back Israel after hearing a well-reasoned refutation of bogus anti-Israel claims than upon receiving a free t-shirt or condom.