Pro-Israel Groups: Campuses Improving


Forward
Date: 06-23-05

By NATHANIEL POPPER

It has become common for many Jewish activists and Israeli leaders to claim that Israel's standing among university students and professors is bad and getting worse. But a recent meeting of pro-Israel campus groups came to a very different conclusion.

Earlier this month, the Israel on Campus Coalition called together its 28 member agencies for a post-graduation consultation on the issue. A vast majority of the groups agreed that the situation has vastly improved since the first two years after the beginning of the current intifada in 2000 and is far more hospitable than 15 years ago, when the first intifada was taking place.

"After many years of seeing the campus as a burden or liability, the pro-Israel community is coming to see the campus as a potential asset to the American pro-Israel movement," said Jonathan Kessler, director of leadership development at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "What an incredible turnaround."

Normally such findings would be cause for celebration.

But the majority conclusion is causing some conflict given the high-profile release of a new report from an upstart advocacy group, The Israel Project. The report, "America 2020," paints a gloomier picture, stating the prospects for Israel in the most downcast terms.

"Never in the modern history of the Jewish state has there been more outspoken public opposition on elite college campuses to the basic principles and tenets of Israel," Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote in the introduction to the study. Luntz conducted the study on behalf of The Israel Project, which is based in Washington.

The Israel Project, which was not among the 28 on-campus groups that took part in the recent meeting, based its report on focus groups with 150 non-Jewish graduate students at elite universities. The goal of the project was to provide a view of how the next generation of American leaders thinks about Israel — but the study regularly moves to discussions about the broader atmosphere on campus. The study will be unveiled publicly at a June 26 conference in Washington being dubbed the "Ultimate Training Seminar for Pro-Israel Advocates."

The new report has drawn some criticism from the wider community of Israel advocacy groups, both for its findings and its methodology.

"I don't know how they come to their generalizations when it's clear that students on campus are in a more supportive, pro-Israel environment than ever before," said Aaron Goldberg, the associate director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. "I would question how their conclusions were reached, and what information they based it on," added Goldberg, who is currently compiling an assessment from the recent meeting with the coalition's 28 member agencies, including Hillel and Aipac.

Goldberg said that since the second intifada began in 2000 and anti-Israel activity spiked, pro-Israel advocates have mounted a coordinated campaign and made great strides in their effort to win back campus sentiment.

In one such effort, Aipac hosted 100 presidents of student governments at its recent policy conference — an annual event that has become the major gathering event for pro-Israel student activists. Eighty of the 100 student presidents were not Jewish. Last year the event drew a total of only 40 student-government presidents.

Ido Aharoni, who is in charge of public affairs at Israel's New York consulate, says that the Aipac experience is representative of the general state of affairs on campus. He said that a few organizations have overplayed fears about the atmosphere on campus for "organizational needs."

"The situation as we see it is not nearly as acute as presented by some Jewish organizations," Aharoni said. "They're creating unnecessary hysteria in the community."

The president of The Israel Project, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, backed off from some of the statements made in the introduction to "America 2020," saying, "That is [Luntz's] introduction and his opinion."

Luntz, the author of the report, strongly defended his work against criticism from other Jewish organizations, which he said "have to justify their success to their donors."

"I understand that the Jewish community does not want to acknowledge these issues because it is acknowledging that they aren't succeeding," Luntz said. "But I don't want another Jewish kid to walk out of a classroom in tears because of an antisemitic crack or an anti-Israel assertion."

Incidents like the ones Luntz refers to were frequently cited in news reports this year. The most famous confrontations occurred at Columbia University, where a number of Jewish students accused pro-Palestinian professors of making classroom political discussions overly personal. These incidents led some Israeli observers to draw larger conclusions about the environment on campuses throughout North America. Natan Sharansky, the former Israeli minister for Diaspora affairs, who made a tour of 13 American universities, said in February that campuses had become "islands of antisemitism."

Sharansky was enlisted to write one of the two forewords to the new study from The Israel Project, and he used the opportunity to advance his dark view of American campuses. "There are too many students afraid to speak out because of fear of being unpopular — even at the best universities," Sharansky wrote.

At the end-of-the-year meeting organized by the Israel on Campus Coalition, a couple of the groups shared Sharansky's views. But attendees said that these groups were primarily the ones most involved in the Columbia controversy — in particular The David Project, a Boston-based organization that produced a video chronicling accusations of Columbia professors intimidating pro-Israel students.

At the recent meeting, there was a broad recognition that Israel's position on campus is far from perfect.

"The advent of the intifada has made a significant impact on campuses. The portrayal of Israel in the general media did significant damage to Israel on campus," said Richard Moline, director of Koach, the Conservative movement's campus organization. "We have a lot of work to do, but there are reasons for optimism."

Aharoni, at the Israeli consulate, says that when he was in school during the 1980s, during the first intifada, he saw widespread hatred toward Israel. In recent weeks, though, he has made a tour of American campuses and encountered something very different.

"There's some legitimate criticism," Aharoni said. "But by and large I find there is a great deal of understanding for our position. When there is malicious criticism it is normally on the fringe."



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