Published by: New York Jewish Week

February 17, 2015 12:00 am

In recent years, the Jewish community has become increasingly concerned with how Israel is perceived on American college campuses. I am asked frequently, mostly by anxious members of the community, about possible solutions to the problem. Throughout my career of more than 20 years, I have taken the situation on campus very seriously, as have many of my colleagues. I’ve had the privilege of visiting and lecturing at numbers of universities and colleges throughout North America. In my visits, I regularly meet not only top administrators and faculty but also campus activists and students. Here’s what I’ve learned:

 Contrary to what many may think, the real challenge on campus is not necessarily on the quads. The main challenge is in the academic realm. Tragically, and not without our own contribution, the academic discussion about Israel has been almost solely confined to Israel’s geopolitical hardships.

In the classroom, students are often exposed to Israel as a political issue usually within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict. The powerfully positive and optimistic narrative of Zionism, one of the most successful national liberation movements in history, has been reduced to a narrow, one-dimensional, discussion of the conflict. Sadly, many of Israel’s well-wishers have contributed to this reduction.

Then, out on the quads, some students witness the heated debates and protests over the situation between Israel and its neighbors. Many of us believe that the main task is to win those debates. The reality is that in today’s “Age of Information” there are no winners in lingering debates, only losers. Vast research shows that the very nature of confrontation is a turnoff to many students, the majority of whom are not emotionally invested in these issues.
Every encounter with an uninterested/uninformed student or staffer on campus should be viewed as an opportunity. Imagine you are on a first date: you talk about your personal baggage, reciting historical facts and explaining legal arguments, and chances are you likely will not land a second date. 

The quality of the emotional tie: This is another challenge that Israel is facing on campus. The majority of college students are not attracted to the politics of the Middle East. And as a result of only talking about Israel’s political reality, students do not see Israel as a people or a creative society. They have developed an inability to relate to our country.

Studies have shown that approximately 20 percent of Americans wholeheartedly support, care and stand with Israel, while 8 percent of Americans do not buy into Israel no matter what. We should focus our efforts on the middle, the 72 percent of Americans on the sidelines of the debate, uninterested in Israel and unconcerned with Middle East politics. It is this apathy, not animosity, which is the biggest challenge Israel faces on campus today. It stems from a disconnect between the conversation about Israel that is currently taking place on campus, and what students truly care about.

Instead of explaining why Israel is on the right side of a debate, we need to show how Israel is relevant and can be attractive to college students. As my dear friend and a great Zionist, Frederick Lawrence, Brandeis’ outgoing president, has often said publicly, “Israel is a country, not a conflict.”

So how do we address these major challenges? We should begin by broadening the conversation about Israel. This does not mean ignoring the geopolitical situation, which is an integral aspect of understanding Israel in the world, but expanding the conversation to include issues that matter to college students.

We should be talking about Israel as a place of opportunity, based on its relative advantages as a leader in science, sustainability, medicine, business, health and lifestyle.

These are topics that generate the many niche conversations that college students are having in the classroom, on social media and with their friends. It is where Israel is relevant — we just need to do a better job of showing how.

For students of faith, we should be hosting a conversation focused on theology, heritage and tradition. For students interested in science and technology, we should be engaging them through Israel’s tech scene and fascinating medical advancements. For community service groups on campus, we should connect them to Israel’s efforts to heal the world through disaster response, agricultural training and combatting disease. And for the few on the fringe who want to passionately debate Middle East politics, we should not shy away from engaging them as well.

Long-term approach: The key, though, to changing the reality on campus is to stop looking at the situation as a crisis, and start thinking about a long-term approach to talking about Israel. Broadening the conversation in these ways is not meant to serve as a crisis management vehicle, but rather a strategy for changing the narrow perception of Israel.

Students want to be associated with places they feel connected to, where they can express themselves, fulfill themselves, start a business or simply have a fun time.

We should empower the organizations that have adopted this approach when it comes to Israel. The efforts of organizations like Masa, BirthrightJNFLapidAIPACJFNAHillel and others have resulted in a new phenomenon in which this generation is looking to Israel as a place of opportunity.

For instance, the nonprofit Israel & Co. has brought nearly 1,500 MBA students from the top business schools in the U.S. to Israel, where they see the country’s creative spirit firsthand. Their work is changing the landscape on campuses nationwide by sparking the professional curiosity of students and bringing Israel into their curriculum.

It is these types of ventures that help make Israel relevant to college students. By further increasing strategic partnerships, we can continue sharing Israel’s many attractive features.

Together we can host a new and engaging conversation with students, ensuring that Israel’s future on campus is bright.