Classroom battlegrounds: a new war on campus?

This is a republication of an original article written by Dr. Mitchell Bard in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday, March 22, 2009.


Before the school year started I wrote that the expectation was that this would be a good year for Israel on campus. During the summer there were no indications of any problems and, in fact, the fall had little anti-Israel activity and a good deal of positive programming from pro-Israel students. Not surprisingly, the situation changed dramatically in the wake of the war in Gaza as students returned to school from their winter break to find an invigorated anti-Israel movement mounting protests against the Israeli operation.

The war ended, but anti-Israel activities have continued and are reaching a level of intensity that we have not seen since its height. What is different now is that in addition to the campuses that are known hotbeds of hostility, anti-Israel incidents have occurred at a variety of schools, many of which have never had these problems before. A couple of incidents have also been unusually virulent and involved more serious physical threats to Jews than we are accustomed to seeing.

Some of the hostility is being driven by faculty, who I have repeatedly warned are the greatest threat to Israel’s standing on campus. Professors with political agendas have been particularly active in the last several weeks and used the Gaza war as a catalyst for bashing Israel. Thus, at a number of campuses, faculty have organized panels to discuss the war where Israel’s point of view either is not represented at all or is offered by one person opposed by multiple representatives of Hamas. The faculty has also been energized to renew efforts to divest from Israel and instigate an academic boycott.

Typically, some incidents have been blown out of proportion, such as the story of Hampshire College divesting from Israel. As it turned out, this small school did not divest, as some pro-Palestinian students claimed, because of Israeli politics, but made some changes in its portfolio based on its broader agenda of politically correct investing. The publicity the story attracted gave many people a false sense that the anti-Israel lobby was gaining ground on campus when in fact no schools are divesting from or boycotting Israel.

One of the interesting aspects of the current anti-Israel ferment is that it is not being coordinated by any central organization as was the case in the past when Arab student groups were motivating student agitation around the country. Today, the Internet drives a lot of the activity and individuals and small groups can mobilize supporters through blogs and Facebook groups.

One explanation for the persistence of the anti-Israel activity may also be the change in the US administration and the expectation that President Obama will radically change US policy – shifting from the historic stalwart support of Israel to a more aggressive posture that would involve pressuring Israel to dismantle settlements, end the “occupation” and capitulate to other Arab demands. Believing that they played a key role in his election, these students also may think they can demand the adoption of such positions. Viewing the situation from Washington, however, there is no reason to believe at this point the Obama administration will be any less supportive of Israel than its predecessors.

One consequence of the escalation of anti-Israel activity on campus is that students have once again been thrown largely on the defensive after spending the last few years on offense and focusing more on a positive depiction of Israel. Pro-Israel faculty continues to be a disappointment in their failure to speak out against the misuse of the university by demagogic colleagues and to insist that “academic” forums have some scholarly basis. They have also failed to organize events that might present a more accurate picture of events. Visiting Israeli scholars we are sponsoring around the country are among the rare exceptions to this deficient response.

I just returned from speaking at four campuses in the Toronto area, including York University, where an angry mob in February drove Jewish students to seek refuge in the Hillel office. Most students told me that with the exception of that incident, the campuses were pretty quiet. Even Israel Apartheid Week passed with little fanfare at most universities. Despite some of the horror stories I’d heard, my experience was very positive, with groups of energetic pro-Israel students attending my lectures at York, Toronto, Guelph and Waterloo. The few dissidents in the audience were respectful and asked reasonable questions. One, for example, was an unabashed Hamas supporter, who had no problem with that group’s agenda. Another was a conflicted Jewish student who desperately wanted me to say that criticizing Israel’s right to exist didn’t make someone an anti-Semite.

The question now being asked is whether the current situation represents a new phase in the campus war or just a momentary blip. “Israel Apartheid Week” has passed and that is likely to be the high-water mark for the anti-Israel groups. The pro-Israel students will now have their chance as they begin to have celebrations associated with Israel’s Independence Day, though they are likely to be on a smaller scale this year because so much effort was spent on the 60th birthday events.

The semester is also coming to an end for most colleges, so little time is left for further anti-Israel agitation. Some students will then graduate and an unpredictable summer lies ahead. Barring any major events, it is hard to know whether Israel’s detractors will pick up where they left off, start from scratch or simply be out of steam. A lot will depend on the actions of the Israeli and American governments and whether a peace process is reinvigorated.

It is clear, however, that high school seniors will need to be prepared for the possibility of entering a hostile environment where their knowledge and commitment will be tested. Returning students will also need to be ready to hit the ground running with positive programming as well as answers to the attacks they are likely to face from detractors. AICE will again sponsor approximately two dozen visiting Israeli professors, but their reach is limited. Groups that work with faculty will need to do a far better job of mobilizing the academic community to organize lectures and conferences that have real scholarly content and to do a better job of ensuring that their colleagues and the broader university community is not abused to promote hate, anti-Semitism and pseudo scholarship.


About the Author

Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of AICE and the Jewish Virtual Library, and author of Will Israel Survive? and 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust.