Yes, there is work to be done to defend Israel on the American college campus, but let’s not panic. The situation is not so bad. In some respects, in fact, the college campus is an island of sanity when it comes to discussions about Israel.
On a speaking tour this fall, I visited four American colleges and universities, lecturing primarily about the Middle East, as well as about other topics in Jewish and Biblical studies. I had not spent much time with college students for a number of years, and my trips, generally speaking, were a pleasure. The students were sharp, the questions were good, and the level of debate was high.
At Florida State University, for example, a large public university in Tallahassee, I met with a broad cross-section of the university population: I gave a public lecture, sat with professors, had lunch with Muslim and Jewish students, and taught a religion class. There were, to be sure, some challenges to Israel’s legitimacy: Some of the Muslim students pressed about the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and some left-wing Jewish students were far more focused on Palestinian suffering than on Jewish security and wellbeing. Nonetheless, when responses were provided to their questions and concerns, they listened—and if they did not, their fellow students did. And the tone of the discussions was consistently civil.
And this too: I was struck by the distinct absence of right-wing Jewish craziness in my various talks and meetings. The settlement obsession that often seems to have taken possession of Israel’s soul is virtually absent on campus. American Jews elsewhere may not like settlement expansion (see the Pew study), but given the government of Israel’s constant efforts to accommodate the settler lobby, Jewish communal groups get caught up in a never-ending stream of excuse-making for the settlement enterprise. Yet on campus, even the most devoted pro-Israel groups hardly ever rally on behalf of settlements. Embracing settlements is recognized for what it is - absurd. To support Israel’s cause on campus means to advocate for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps to be agreed upon by both Israelis and Palestinians. All the rest is blather and bluster, certain to undercut rather than strengthen Israel’s case.
Are American campuses a hotbed of anti-Israeli hostility? They are not. And despite sensationalist press stories and boycott endorsements by marginal academic groups, American Jews know that better than anyone. Approximately 90% of American Jews of college age enroll at a university, and when they return home for vacation, hardly any of them tell their parents about being inundated with hatred of Israel. Yes, there are anti-Israel organizations of various types and sizes, up to no good. But very few Jewish students feel that an anti-Israel environment prevails at their schools.
On balance, therefore, the Jewish community should be pleased with the situation on campus, although ongoing vigilance is surely required. With that in mind, I support the decision of International Hillel to bar anti-Zionist groups from speaking under Hillel auspices. I am worried that the recent victories, however modest, by pro-boycott groups could give momentum to anti-Israel forces; and, as many have pointed out, there are no free speech or censorship issues here. A voluntary religious organization that advocates for Israel has no responsibility to provide a platform to those who express views that it finds abhorrent and that contradict its most fundamental principles. Diversity of opinion is valuable, but only up to a point; and in the final analysis, allowing groups that are unremittingly hostile to Israel to speak at a Hillel will end up granting those groups a legitimacy that they do not deserve.
One final issue: Hillel is not entirely a hero here, and should take this opportunity to revise its guidelines. Those guidelines call for Hillel chapters to reject speakers who call for boycotts of Israel and who fail to recognize the right of Israel to exist as Jewish and democratic state. This clearly means a two-state solution; so far, so good. But they then go on to say that speakers who “apply a double standard to Israel” must also be rejected. “Applying a double standard” can mean practically anything, and apparently Hillel has been guilty of applying a double standard of its own, holding groups on the left that meet its criteria—such as J Street—to different standards than groups on the right.
But first things first: Proponents of BDS and organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) are anti-Israel by any reasonable definition of the term. The first responsibility of Jewish groups on campus is to do what they have been doing for years and to contest the arguments and rebut the claims of Israel’s enemies. Jewish groups have the knowledge and the skills to do this; what they do not have is any responsibility to invite their enemies into their home. That is a privilege reserved for family and friends.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.
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