Editor’s note: For more on the Israel lobby’s organizing activities see The Real Threat of “The Lobby”?, Behind the campaign to rescind divestment and Democracy at Work.
By Gary Rosenblatt – Editor And Publisher
In the first salvo of what promises to be a turbulent season of anti-Israel activities at American colleges, a group of students and others at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh protested on July 26 against “Israeli terrorism” in Lebanon.
A counter protest was held by Jewish students.
While most campuses have been quiet because of the summer recess, “This year will be the most challenging in memory,” warned Jonathan Kessler, the leadership development director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which organizes pro-Israel activities at universities around the country.
He and a number of other American Jewish leaders and educators said they are bracing for a surge of rallies, protests and campaigns against Israel’s military conduct in Lebanon when the fall semester begins later this month. They know Israel will be portrayed by critics as a powerful and murderous war machine against innocent citizens. And they plan to counter such propaganda with a message emphasizing Hezbollah’s responsibility not only for Israeli deaths with missiles aimed at civilians but Lebanese casualties as well, since the terror group positions itself among the populace.
In addition to concern about stepped-up activities by anti-Israel students and faculty, the officials acknowledge they are worried about the reactions of many Jewish students who have witnessed on television and the Internet the images of Lebanese civilians killed, wounded or made homeless in the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the importance” of the war’s impact on “a younger generation of diaspora Jews” who either “unjustifiably blame Israel or become more alienated” from Israel, noted Stephen P. Cohen, a Mideast scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.
The Hillel director of a major university said his impression was that Jewish students “are in agony, they feel they can’t defend Israel. They’re embarrassed.”
But Wayne Firestone, Hillel International’s incoming president, noted that with so many Jewish college students having experienced Israel through birthright israel trips, most of them have a greater affinity for and connection to the country and its plight. He said such students could be effective in speaking to peers this fall about what Israel is really like, beneath the headlines.
But Firestone acknowledged that “a lot of Jewish students will come with questions, based on their instincts for seeking peace. Maybe they will be requesting a cease-fire. Others will be disturbed and uncertain” about how to understand the suffering of the Lebanese they have witnessed in the media.
“The most difficult challenge is the collateral damage to civilians in Lebanon,” he said. “We’ll lose points on that, it’s a very difficult story to tell, one that requires context and history, and students will be very sympathetic” to the suffering.
But Firestone and other Jewish officials working with college students noted that the community and its organizations are more prepared than they were in 2002, when the Palestinian intifada sparked a number of large and bitter protests against Israel on a variety of campuses.
Indeed, the sense that Jewish college students were caught unaware of how to respond effectively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a few years ago led to the creation of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), made up some 30 Jewish organizations, with sophisticated infrastructure, communication and educational tools.
Still, Jewish campus organizers had to scramble to re-frame the focus of their attention from the Palestinian conflict to the war with Hezbollah over the last several weeks. AIPAC’s long-planned four-day training seminar for 350 student activists from around the country, held July 23-26 in Washington, was “recalibrated” only days before, according to an organizer, so as to reflect the current conflict.
One attendee, Miri Cypers, 20, an incoming junior at Columbia University, said the focus shifted to include Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, and the need to help students understand that this war is not just about Israel and Arabs. “We have to show that this situation has a much larger context and much larger repercussions for the region,” she said, and that it deals with state-sponsored terrorism.
The main goal of the conference, she said, was “to deliver the college campus as an asset to the pro-Israel community, primarily by engaging in political activity.”
Cypers, who volunteered for the campaign of Sen. Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut this summer, noted that the conference participants lobbied members of Congress on behalf of Israel, and that LionPac, Colombia’s largest pro-Israel group, of which she is vice president, is already organizing a similar mission to Congress when school resumes.
“I anticipate a pretty hostile environment” on campus, she said, “but also a chance to unite the pro-Israel community and to educate the campus about the issues,” by speaking to student government leaders, faculty and peers.
She said the “toughest challenge” facing pro-Israel activists on her campus will be “to push ahead with our own agenda that is positive and achieves results, and not be distracted by media attention and Israel detractors trying to muddle our message.”
Such discipline may be difficult on many U.S. campuses, though, where, according to one Jewish official, reactions against Israel are “four times tougher” than among the American population in general. And while polls show Americans are still strongly supportive of Israel, there is concern that the longer the war goes on, the greater the chance for that support to wane.
As Firestone of Hillel noted, the painful and visceral images of suffering and death among Lebanese civilians are difficult to counter with more nuanced reasoning about historical perspective and moral culpability.
“We may have to get into issues of morality in warfare,” said Firestone, noting that in the past, “targeted assassinations,” as Israel has employed in countering Palestinian terrorists, “is a tough sell on campus.”
But he and others emphasized that Hezbollah is responsible for the casualties on both sides and stress that it attacked Israel in violation of United Nations resolutions and internationally accepted boundaries, underscoring that the terror group’s motivation is not land or borders but destroying the Jewish state.
Some prefer to emphasize that Israel is merely the willing proxy for the U.S. in a struggle against Islamic militancy that seeks to widen its reach.
Daniel Gordis, vice president of the Mandel Foundation in Israel, an educational institution, believes that “the point has to be made that what Israel is doing now is what the U.S. did in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is a worldwide assault on the West — its democracy values, its openness, etc. Either we fight back, or we, our children, or our grandchildren, will live under that form of Islam… We’re willing to exact a huge, if tragic, price to save civilization. It sounds hyperbolic,” he told The Jewish Week, “but to me, it’s not.
“The tragedy is real,” he added, “but so is the lack of choices.”
Others, though, question whether it is wise to compare Israel’s fight against Hezbollah with the U.S. conflict in Iraq, since that war is extremely unpopular among many college students.
Even the fact that the Bush administration has been so supportive of Israel is not necessarily a plus for Israel, according to Firestone, because of the strong dislike many students have of the president. But other Jewish officials note that the administration’s backing of Israel has had a strong positive impact on the media.
The Israel Campus Coalition is planning a special conference in Washington in early September to further plan and coordinate an approach for pro-Israel activists. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while supporters of Israel have been successful on campus in recent years — defeating divestment efforts, marginalizing anti-Israel groups and making inroads with peers — “of course we’re worried about the campus mood,” noting that “the campus is disproportionately affected” by the current war.
“We have to make the case for Israel to Jewish students before they hear from others.”
Rachel Klapper, 20, a sophomore at Baruch College in New York, where she is a leader of the pro-Israel community, said she and other activists are worried that the “gruesome” photos of dead Lebanese children will be difficult to counter.
“We have to put Israel in a different context than as victim, as was done when children were being blown up on buses,” said Klapper, a graduate of the Write On For Israel advocacy program for high school students, sponsored by The Jewish Week. “We need to explain that this is about Iran and a global threat.”
She said that with the semester starting Aug. 30, she is already working on opinion pieces for the school newspaper.