Israel’s treatment on campus is a perpetual concern of a broad swath of American Jews, and rightly so. The very idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the policies that state’s citizens elect to follow, regularly receives there unwarranted criticisms that might play in the European mainstream, but have little currency in the United States off the quad.
The anxiety consequently produced nevertheless often manages to miss the true nature of the challenge on campus, as well as the reality of Jewish life there. A couple of articles published in the past few days offer refreshing windows into what things look like at ground level.
Kenneth L. Marcus, the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy of the divide in the Jewish community between “quietists” and “alarmists,” the former being those who deny that there is any anti-Semitism on campus, and the latter being those who “see danger behind every corner.”
Neither camp, Marcus notes, is entirely correct. The alarmists too often ignore the extraordinary richness of opportunities for Jewish life on campus along with the demise of an institutional anti-Semitism that once barred Jews from entry or made their lives difficult while there. The quietists see those opportunities perhaps too well, ignoring troubling undertones in the discussion of Jews and the Jewish state.
Another article published in The Times of Israel by Seffi Kogen, a student at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, laments the “disappearance” of Jewish students from Israel-themed events, diagnosing pre-college Jewish educational experiences that teaches them that campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel protests and speakers and arms them with debating points, only to find that students don’t show up to do anything much related to Israel except for those rare annual rites of dramatic anti-Israel protest. He thinks the solution is getting young Jews “to love to discuss Israel and think about Israel, and not only to fight for Israel.”
Kogen’s take represents the downside for Israel’s case when young people are fed too many alarming stories before they get to school while not being told enough about the less dramatic but more costly pervasive negativity in the attitude toward Israel taken by far too many young people who don’t know or care much about the Middle East. If you are taught only to fight, but not to persuade, and only to be concerned about a speech in the student union, and not a conversation in a dorm room, it’s not surprising that you find yourself shrugging most days and getting animated only when someone puts a mock wall up.
Of course, as a general matter, it’s easier to get concerned about dramatic displays than subtle remarks. Dealing effectively with the latter, which is probably of far greater consequence than the former, means getting better at teaching young people how to get beyond pro-Israel talking points and into the substance of the justice underlying the cause of Jewish independence.
It’s harder, but that’s what we’ll have to do if we really want to improve the way Israel is talked about on campus.