Over the past few years there have been some significant developments regarding Israel’s status on campuses. We will explore these developments according to three main groups: students, faculty, and administration and alumni, while highlighting positive and negative trends in each.
De-legitimization among Students
Anti-Israel activity today is prevalent on over 300 campuses across the U.S., 40 of which have emerged in the last year, and led mostly by SJP, which is active on over 150 campuses.36
Moreover, the nature and tone of anti-Israel activity has noticeably intensified. Anti-Israel protests are increasingly turning anti-Semitic, and Jewish and pro-Israel students routinely feel intimidated and harassed, including by anti-Israel faculty. On most of these campuses, we hear frequent reports of increasingly “poisonous” rhetoric and a “charged” atmosphere regarding Israel, which has led to a growing polarization on the issue. This has been accompanied and spurred on by a sophisticated dismantling of the traditional narrative of Israel’s founding.
Pro-Israel organizations especially note the tactical shift from a “narrative” based, “hearts and minds” approach, that focused on “guerrilla theater” (“apartheid walls” and “die-ins”) to a BDS-focused, political “dog-fight” campaign approach, more aggressive and sophisticated than in previous years.37 This past academic year (2014-2015), there were 44 student initiated BDS campaigns on 35 unique campuses: 9 passed, 29 failed, and 6 remained unresolved. 2013-2014 saw 19 campaigns on 15 campuses, with 5 passing and 14 failing; and 2012-2013 saw 13 campaigns on 13 campuses, with 7 passing and 6 failing.
Thus, the trend for the foreseeable future will likely entail a greater quantity of BDS campaigns on a greater number of campuses. On the other hand, there has not been an increase in the percentage (even a decrease) of campaigns that succeed at the student level. And, to date, no campaign that has passed the student level has made it past the administration level. However, we should note that in most respects, BDS organizers achieve their aim simply by having the issue raised at all, forcing previously apolitical students to contend with and question Israel’s alleged “crimes.” Therefore, unlike actual political campaigns, anti-Israel activists partly achieve their goals just by raising the issue, regardless of outcome.
Moreover, these groups are succeeding in expanding their circle of influence and spreading their anti-Israel message by manipulating identity politics. As noted, realizing the lack of broad sympathy for the Palestinian cause, activists are connecting and sympathizing with local liberal causes and “oppressed” student groups such as blacks, Latinos, LGBT’s, environmental activists and feminists while positioning “Palestine” as one of a number of liberal causes de rigueur.38 Conversely, pro-Israel students are excluded from these groups.
Campus groups also report a growing and worrying anti-normalization trend within the anti-Israel movement, such that dialogue is becoming exceedingly rare between pro and anti-Israel groups.39 Relatedly, instances of aggressively silencing pro-Israeli speakers are all too common.40 The general mood on the campus has led to more limited and often unequal platforms for pro-Israel voices to be heard.
The “half-full” crowd, on the other hand, admit that while more radicalized than in the past, severe anti-Israel activity is still limited to roughly 20 campuses (mostly in California and some elite schools across the country) of the 300, out of a total of approximately 4,000 campuses in the U.S. Moreover, they note that even on these 20 or so campuses, Jews feel comfortable most year round, certainly physically safe, with anti-Israel activity peaking at certain times of year and limited to a few or tens of hard-core activists. In fact, they note that on any given “anti-Israel” campus, there are no more than 10 or 20 “hard-core” anti-Israel activists who show up to meetings or regular events, while on many of these campuses, pro-Israel activists will outweigh anti-Israel activists by 2 or even 3 to 1.
The “half-full” group would also note that while from afar it may seem as though most students are anti-Israel, in reality it appears the “majority of students on the majority of American […] campuses are not concerned with politics” at any level.41 A 2014 Harvard survey of 18-29-year-olds confirms this, noting that “jobs and health care” and “education” came in well in front of “foreign affairs and government” as student priorities.42 The downside of this, of course, is that the trend includes Jewish students as well.43
Moreover, while many claim a widespread, well-funded and organized strategic network working against Israel, there is little evidence of this. Rather, it seems to be “the efforts” of a “handful of students… poorly organized, and take(ing) place haphazardly on a small percentage of American campuses,” and with shoe-string budgets.44 This, however, is beginning to change. Over the past year or so, national pro-BDS organizations have begun offering their assistance to the campus effort, providing expensive and crucial resources and services.45 While by all estimates, the funding and power of anti-Israel groups do not even come close to those of pro-Israel groups, this trend should not go overlooked.
While the focus is most often on students, anti-Israel faculty may actually pose a bigger challenge, due to their tenure, prestige, and platform. This is especially the case with Middle East Studies departments, which tend to be biased against Israel, but also a large number of extreme liberal and even radical left lecturers who are not Middle East experts but use their prestige to voice anti-Israel opinions. This phenomenon has its roots in both the original funding of such departments from Arab governments and donors as well as the general post-modernist and relativist worldviews prevalent in academic circles today.47 The late Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, which brought post-colonialism to Middle East studies, is still highly influential, and can be seen in Colombia professor Joseph Massad’s work, which is representative of the tone in Middle East Studies departments across the country.48
There are also numerous reports that pro-Israel lecturers either feel they must hide their views in order to be accepted, or risk isolation and unofficial boycotts. The recent case of Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin illustrates this atmosphere.49
This trend among faculty is tempered, in part, by the general waning of the humanities in American universities. “Half-fullers” point out that fewer students are studying the humanities while more are studying business, economics, or science.50 This holds a number of opportunities for Israel supporters: fewer students are exposed to possibly negative or skewed information about Israel; those who teach and study these topics tend to be far less politically radical than in the social sciences; and Israel is currently excelling in these fields, which are often disconnected from the conflict.51
Moreover, while Arab-funded, biased Middle East Studies departments have been around for decades, the past decade has seen the birth of Israel studies departments.52 Today, there are 17 Israel Studies Departments across the U.S. (and 3 more in Canada),53 with dozens of visiting Israeli professors coming to the U.S. every year to teach on a range of subjects. While difficult to measure, the scholarly and nuanced view they provide, even if critical of Israel, has been generally positive in countering de-legitimization, albeit gradual.
Administrators and Alumni
Lastly, university administrators have a potentially important impact on the overall picture. To date, administrators have been mostly positive, if passive, regarding anti-Israel activity on their campuses. Thus, while allowing anti-Israel events to take place in the name of freedom of speech, and perhaps not doing enough to ensure civility and order at pro-Israel events, administrations have rejected all student led BDS motions (almost) outright and have made public statements rejecting academic boycotts in general. Moreover, cooperation with Israeli universities has increased over the past few years, with 34 universities conducting or exploring cooperation with Israeli universities.54
As this report reaches completion, a debate is underway regarding a motion whereby the University of California system would adopt the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.55 This initiative has the backing of a large number of alumni and the California State Senate, which issued a non-binding resolution urging the UC system to condemn anti-Semitism and work to curb it.56 If passed, this would be considered the most significant step taken by a university administration to date on this issue.
The role of alumni and university donors (many of whom are Jewish) has yet to be fully researched, although it appears a promising avenue to explore as a form of pressure on administrators to clamp down on de-legitimization (as in the case of Steven Salaita and University of Illinois donors).
Conclusion: A Comparative View
In 2010, JPPI published as part of its annual assessment, a report on the developing threat on U.S. college campuses.57 In 2010, the Jewish community and Israel were only beginning to wake up to this worrying trend, recognizing, “The goal of many… of this campaign is ostensibly to pressure Israel into more humane policies toward Palestinian populations… (yet) in many college environments the campaign spreads into a broader form of Israel-phobia aimed at de-legitimizing the very concept of a Jewish state”. (JPPI AA 2010) The report further noted the increasingly radical tactics used by Israel’s opponents.
If we compare Israel’s current status on U.S. campuses to that of a few years ago, we can point to some clear trends. On one hand, Israel de-legitimizers are growing more vocal and extreme, are shifting tactics to a more BDS focused approach, are moving toward anti-normalization with pro-Israel students, are aggressively connecting the Palestine issue with leading domestic liberal causes, and are beginning to get help from outside professional organizations. On the other hand, as will be elaborated in the following section, the Jewish community has thrown its weight, experience, and money into countering anti-Israel activity on campuses, has succeeded in defeating most BDS resolutions, and where BDS is passed, administrations are quick to strike them down and have even increased cooperation with Israel. Moreover, Israel remains largely popular in America in general – an environment from which college students originate and to which they return.
Challenges remain and are significant. They include tenured anti-Israel faculty, often passive administrations, and disagreements and even a lack of cooperation within the Jewish community on how to combat de-legitimization (not to mention Jewish involvement and leadership within the de-legitimization movement).