The campus crisis, in perspective

The campus crisis, in perspective

Two time-honored ways of drawing attention to your cause are 1) to exaggerate the problem you’re addressing and 2) claim no one else is doing anything about it.

A casebook example comes from Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group that aims to combat Islamic extremism. Its founder is Charles Jacobs, who cofounded the Boston branch of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and the American Anti-Slavery Group, which lobbied against the slave trade in Sudan.

In an op-ed in the Boston Jewish Advocate titled “Why the Jews are losing the battle for the campus,” Jacobs asserts that “Jewish leaders have remained mostly silent” even as “too many Jewish and pro-Israel students are patronized, mocked, intimidated, and sometimes physically attacked, while anti-Israel professors poison the minds of America’s future leaders.”

If Jewish leaders are remaining silent, this is the loudest silence I’ve ever heard. Here’s a partial list of organizations dealing with the issue: the Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, AIPAC, Chabad, Jewish National Fund’s Caravan for Democracy, and the JFNA/JCPA Israel Advocacy Initiative. Many of these are in turn members of the Israel on Campus Coalition, itself a partnership of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, in cooperation with literally dozens of national organizations.

Among the anti-Israel incidents listed by Jacobs was last month’s pro-Palestinian event at Rutgers University, whose title and panelists suggested Palestinians are suffering under occupation the way Jews suffered under Nazism. The campus Hillel and local and state Jewish groups were so silent on this issue that 500 pro-Israel counter-demonstrators turned out, the federations pledged $10,000 for pro-Israel efforts, and groups held a pro-Israel training session three days later for 23 campus leaders. Their silence continued Feb. 16 at a meeting on the issue organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and a number of local synagogues. Some 250 people attended the gathering.

Nevertheless, in an e-mail he sent along with his column, Jacobs writes, “Jewish leaders refuse to inform the Jewish community of the nature, extent, and source of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campaigns on American campuses.”

In truth, I haven’t seen an issue galvanize Jewish organizations like this in years. Jacobs’ own David Project is among the many groups competing for the resources being devoted to it.

And perhaps that competition is driving some of the overblown rhetoric surrounding the issue. Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the ICC, suggested as much in a recent essay. “You know the community is in trouble when its single greatest source of campus Israel news often comes from letters and e-mails with requests for donations attached,” he wrote. “You know the ones — the ones that put an inflammatory quote from an incendiary anti-Israel speaker on the envelope and loudly proclaim ‘the campuses are burning!’”

Kuperberg and I had a chance to chat briefly after he visited Rutgers and Princeton this week, talking to students and campus leaders about pro- and anti-Israel activity. Kuperberg doesn’t think campuses are “burning,” but he did work hard at putting the challenge in perspective. “There are certainly places in which Israel supporters feel undermined, under attack, even threatened — those places do exist and I don’t want to minimize them,” he said. “And there is a distinct gap in what the outside community understands and acknowledges and what the campus environment feels like among students who live and breathe it.”

I suggested that activists are split among those who want to pressure administrators to shut down the pro-Palestinian activity and those who want to work with pro-Israel students and make them more effective advocates for Israel.

“I tell people that their strategy needs to encompass all of those elements,” he said. That means building relationships with administrators and faculty, protecting academic integrity on campus, and training students as advocates. He also worries about what he calls the “cost of spotlights” — that is, giving Israel’s detractors the publicity they seek.

One of ICC’s projects is “Israel Campus Beat,” featuring dispatches on the campus Israel debate from student correspondents. I asked Kuperberg if that wouldn’t shine a spotlight on the detractors. “Between reacting to detractors and being strategic about positive relationships, we lean far to the side of being strategic,” he replied.

Kuperberg’s measured response to what others are calling a “crisis” on campus came as a bit of a relief — I’ve long argued that Jewish kids do not have a right to be protected from people who don’t agree with them. But Kuperberg has a steely side too, as I heard when I asked if he would call what’s happening at Rutgers a “crisis.”

Kuperberg paused a moment before answering: “There is a crisis at Rutgers, and that crisis is that the community of Israel supporters on campus is grappling with how to present their message most effectively without stooping or responding to fringe elements that seek to harm Israel or its reputation.”

Those elements are out there. The question is, what’s the best way to fight back? Shouting “fire” might feel good, and raise money, but is it effective?

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