The debate rages on in Israel advocacy circles about what college students need to do in order to survive in the shark tanks that are western universities. In these universities, pro-Israel activists are confronted constantly by professors, student government resolutions and other student groups that are hostile to the continued existence of a Jewish State. The issue that these activists face is that there is no consensus on what they must do in order to reach “neutral” students on campus, who have not yet been reached by either side. There is little point attempting to convince ardent anti-Israel groups like IfNotNow and Students for Justice in Palestine, so the task becomes a battle to entice and inform those students who have not yet formed an opinion. The question of how to do that remains the most pressing of all for these intrepid, but largely leaderless young campus activists.
What many outside the campus environment don’t realize is that most of the pushback against Israel advocacy is initiated by anti-Israel students. Some of these students came to college with an already burning, seemingly tribal (whether it be religious, ethnic, or ideological) drive to libel Israel on campus. Others were indoctrinated by their peers and anti-Israel professors. Both of these demographics move heaven and earth to bring down and smear Israel’s good name to whomever may be willing to listen at every chance they get. This puts pro-Israel students, who really just came to college to get a degree and prepare for a career, on the defensive. They didn’t want to have to spend the entirety of their college years defending their national homeland, but here they are, often correctly inspired by feelings of obligation towards Israel in the face of hearing the country being unfairly maligned.
Unlike the anti-Israel crew, who often seem to come prepared straight out of high school and are oozing with passion and zeal, Jewish students don’t tend to be trained or even experienced activists. In fact, most of them have no idea what they’re doing, and therefore go to their leaders for guidance. Unfortunately, their leaders often don’t know what they’re doing either. As a former college left-wing activist (Alexandra) and Israel advocate with marketing experience (Chaim), we know what works and what doesn’t work. In many cases, what works is the exact opposite of what leaders of Jewish campus organizations tend to believe or preach.
The truth of the matter is, the anti-Israel organizations are winning the war of influence. They’re slowly swaying student governments and academic organizations, and it seems in every BDS battle there are dozens of student organizations “endorsing” BDS – and the numbers keep growing – and maybe five coming out in opposition if we are lucky. What is causing us to slide into irrelevance?
1. The left runs the campus, and the anti-Israel movement has taken over the left
Anyone who’s ever been to college could attest: the left rules. In fact, if you don’t accept the left’s package you’re considered a bad person by students and professors alike, and nobody wants to be considered a bad person. Not only is it social suicide, but it even affects your grades in many cases, because it causes people to doubt your intelligence. Why? There’s a trope on campus of the dumb closed-minded right wing hillbilly who only cares about himself and doesn’t want to engage in causes outside of his own personal bounds. First, because right wing evangelicals tend to form the largest group of Israel supporters, numbering even far more than Jews, especially given that such a large number of the latter are beginning to side with the left against Israel.
These evangelicals have increasingly formed a stronghold of the Republican Party in the US, leading it to gradually become more vocally pro-Israel. Since the Democrats want to be everything the Republicans are not, and admitting you’re a Republican on campus is worse than admitting you kill puppies and kittens for fun, this sets the stage for supporting Israel to be deemed “uncool.” Second, because the anti-Israel contingent who have the most stake in the conflict – notably Muslims and Arabs – also tend to have more melanin and therefore more clout and credibility in the world of leftist identity politics. Third, because anti-Israel activist groups have successfully and proactively managed to hijack various leftist causes such as the Women’s March, LGBT Pride, Idle No More, and #BlackLivesMatter, among many others, under the banner of “intersectionality.” And a distant fourth, because the roots of the anti-Israel movement are in Soviet Propaganda and the left tends to side with the anti-Israel Red-Green alliance that grew up on this propaganda, along with leftist strongholds such as Amnesty International and the UN, which are also heavily influenced by the Red-Green Alliance.
2. Our leaders are professional fundraisers who hate rocking the boat, the opposite of actual activists whose job it is to rock the boat
The Israel activism movement needs bold, confident, big personalities. They need aggressive action, real charisma and risk-taking, but instead, what they’re getting is soft, tame, weak, fearful inactivism. Young activists are scared of the social backlash of identifying with a cause that is deemed not part of the “leftist package” and thereby being branded a “bad person”. They are also stifled by their leadership, composed of professional fundraisers rather than grassroots activists, who are completely paralyzed with fear from donors who are completely behind the times and out of touch with the reality on the ground.
Many of these donors are same people who in the 1960s were willing to get arrested marching with Martin Luther King or protesting the Vietnam War. Now, these same people refuse to donate to organizations that behave in the same fashion as they used to. These once-disheveled hippies became stability-seeking, high-rolling yuppies. And these yuppies like their activism to have a yuppie quality to it. Crisp suits, well-organized lectures with refreshments at the back. Every. Single. Time. The aggressive type of activism these Baby Boomers used to take part in is a type that they now ignore or even condemn as infantile. When they were being arrested for protesting Vietnam, or being beaten by racists during the Civil Rights movement, it was just and righteous. They are still venerated to this day for their courage. Now that they’ve “grown up”, cut their hair and entered the “real world”, they somehow hypocritically find it unacceptable to actually protest and stand up against the delegitimization and attacks against the state of Israel the way they used to. Instead, they only let students support Israel nonconfrontationally: op-Ed’s in the student paper nobody actually reads, bagel lunches, and endless talks by pro-israel speakers.
But whenever a student activist wants to actually go out there and protest, or do something brazen and loud, they get shut down. When Alexandra was at Columbia, it was Hillel that was telling her not to oppose Israel Apartheid Week with anything, acting that if we pretended it didn’t exist it would go away. When her group put up the Pinocchio, it was Hillel that was acting embarrassed and telling them to take it down, even going so far as to publish op Ed’s in disapproval. Later, at least one member of the SSI board of directors (aka big donor) vetoed Alexandra for a position at SSI’s National due to their belief that the Pinocchio was unnecessarily confrontational and “gauche.” This is how real activists get stifled, and why pro-Israel activists aren’t respected as activists.
Jewish student life on campus has become a money-collecting machine instead of properly fighting for what’s right, and this money often has strings attached. Unfortunately, most donors only donate on the condition that the money is used for things they approve of. In particular, they donate towards things that make them look good to non-Jews including interfaith dialogues with Muslim student groups (which only can happen if Hillel keeps quiet enough about Israel and doesn’t step on their toes too much by allowing right wing Zionists into positions of power), and other activities that sound nice to outsiders but don’t help Israel. When Alexandra was at McGill, the liaison between Hillel and the Jewish Federation specifically had a degree in fundraising. This showed Alexandra everything she needed to know about what the organizations’ priorities were.
3. Too many young campus activists are afraid due to the priorities of Jewish “leaders”, and come across as lacking courage in their convictions as a result
SJP gets support because they have the most attractive trait in the world – confidence. They’re absolutely unapologetic, certain of everything they say, and this courage in their convictions gives people the idea that they’re standing up for the truth. In contrast Jewish activists engaged in the same battle of narratives, despite having the truth and the backing of a Jewish state, army, and now the current US Administration, cower in fear. Instead of standing strong and fighting back in a way that is considered admirable to their fellow college students, they engage in the classic and standard diaspora Jewish pastime of blending and melting into their host society.
When Alexandra was in college, her parents said, “don’t join these activists, they’re going nowhere in life, there’s no money in that, it will hurt your career prospects – instead work hard and make enough money to donate to organizations.” The problem is that everyone’s parents seem to be telling them that. Meanwhile, Muslim and Palestinian parents, with the encouragement of groups such as CAIR, encourage their children to push their way into activism by any means necessary by starting and leading groups on campus and pursuing internships in the White House. As a result of this Jewish aversion to pro-Israel activism (which is a sad deviation from the Jewish legacy of activism in general), everyone thinks they will be the big donor instead of the big doer. As a result, while there is a lot of money being thrown around, not a lot of meaningful pro-Israel advocacy is getting done.
4. We aren’t relatable in the slightest, because we are led by people who aren’t in touch with the campus zeitgeist
The big issue today is that our side has guys in suits and the other side has grassroots activists who are relatable. The big difference between left-wing anti-Israel activists and pro-Israel activists is that the leftists aren’t afraid to go to jail for their beliefs. They’ll get arrested and hauled off by the NYPD for blocking the entrance to the Birthright building and refusing to move. In contrast, our “leaders” prevent us from even silently picketing against blatant antisemitism by threatening to withhold funding and support, for fear of rocking the boat and offending donors. They believe that the aggressive activism of left-wing is off-putting and will turn students away, because they are thinking from the perspective of the forty-something year old mid-level professionals that they are. They generally see any kind of genuine, idealistic activism as infantile. They don’t acknowledge or even realize that young adults on college campuses admire this type of brazen courage and desire to emulate it to feel part of an important change. This soft “leadership” teaches students their opinions of what constitutes appropriate activism as if it were law.
They even state that there is psychological research that “proves” their points (without citing a single study, of course), and enact harsh punishments and ostracism on those who dare transgress their modus operandi. We are unsure whether they do this because it is what they genuinely believe or do this out of fear that offending others will reduce donations, but regardless, one thing is for certain – we all know what happens when nobody is offended: it means nothing has been done.
The reality is that activism doesn’t require huge dollars, it requires huge voices. Our donations are going to professional fundraisers who in turn do nothing more than to fundraise for more money to perpetuate the bloated and ineffective system that enabled them to be in this position in the first place, where employees who are actual activists are paralyzed in fear and constantly walking on eggshells.
Due to the fact that their biggest influences come from older people, the inevitable generation gap impedes their ability to get what needs to be done, done. It makes it difficult if not impossible to break down barriers, kick down the doors, stage actual protests, and be proper “badasses” enough for their fellow students to admire them and feel that they are standing up for a worthwhile cause.
This post was written in collaboration with Chaim Zalman Hutz