Last week, student leaders at Harvard, drawn from the undergraduate college, the Kennedy school, the business school, and the law school, held a conference about Israel. While the conference has attracted outside attention mostly as a result of another student-led conference at Harvard earlier this year that advocated the elimination of the Jewish state, campus supporters of Israel would do well to take note of the more recent event for another and better reason: its demonstration of an effective way to talk about Israel to campus audiences.
Drawing big names like Stanley Fischer, the governor of the Bank of Israel, and Dan Senor, probably best known for co-authoring the 2009 book Start-Up Nation, most of the content of the conference focused on Israel’s economic successes, particularly in high-tech and innovation. Senor’s book is itself responsible to a large degree for a widening appreciation in the United States for Israel’s extraordinary economic record during the past 15 or so years, popularizing eye-popping statistics like the number of Israeli companies listed on the NASDAQ stock index or that Israel’s less than 8 million people drew more venture capital in 2008 than the 145 million citizens of France and Germany combined.
Fischer has won well-deserved credit for stewarding Israel through the worldwide economic collapses of the last few years largely unscathed. (Israel’s current unemployment rate, for example, stands at 5.4 percent while its economy grew in the fourth quarter of last year at a rate of 3.4 percent, both statistics the United States and just about every other Western country would look to with envy.)
Even an essay competition and accompanying session about the conflict were framed in terms of “innovating peace.”
The best thing of course about focusing discussions about Israel on its extraordinary record of innovation is that it’s all true. Rather than leading with political issues that are seen as controversial and over which Israel’s cause is not likely to be viewed with broad sympathy on most campuses, opening a discussion of Israel along economic lines also gives the country a much better chance to be favorably received.
While some publications associated with the kind of thinking responsible for so much of the unwarranted criticism the Jewish state faces on campus may see growing partnerships between business and universities as suspicious, students, administrators, and many professors largely don’t see things that way. Business is by far the most popular undergraduate major, chosen by nearly a quarter of all students. Engineering and hard sciences are seeing similar growth, while humanities departments – the worst sources of campus anti-Israelism – face steady declines of potentially catastrophic proportions.
Harvard’s conference is one of a growing number of examples of the effectiveness of this kind of advocacy. Berkeley’s law and business schools jointly hosted a conference on “Israel Through the High-Tech Lens” in February. TAMID, a growing student investment focused on Israel founded by students at Michigan, will be hosting its first national conference in Boston this summer, the same time as the second cohort of the very popular Birthright Israel Excel Fellowship will be in Israel.
None of this is to say that effective campus Israel advocacy can hope to entirely avoid politics. The most contentious issues, especially Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, must be addressed.
But a campus can be a hard place to speak out on Israel’s behalf. We shouldn’t turn away from any trends that favor in improvement in campus discourse about the Jewish state. For the short-term, at least, Israel’s economic successes are a powerful opportunity to generate positive advocacy.