It is not easy to be a Jewish student on college and university campuses today, particularly if one identifies with Israel. On almost every mid-sized to large campus, there are well-organized Palestinian and Moslem groups. While Jewish students are generally more numerous, few actively identify as Jews or participate in pro-Israel activities. Arab and Moslem students, by contrast, are highly involved in Mideast politics.
Even those Jewish students with the best of intentions lack, for the most part, either the information necessary to make Israel’s case or the ability to so effectively. An Ivy League student studying this semester at the Hebrew University described to me a campus debate between two Jewish students and two Palestinians that took place after a well-attended lecture by Hanan Ashwari on campus.
The Jewish students were picked by the campus Hillel rabbi out of those students he happened to know. "You could not help sit their squirming in your seat,’’ my informant told me, as the Palestinian graduate students made mincemeat of them.
At Berkeley, Jewish students manning the Israel table on campus must switch every half hour because of the tremendous pressure to which they are subjected. One day a particulary large crowd gathered to watch a Palestinian and Jewish student debate the blood libel.
Jewish students consistently find themselves on the defensive, in a "Let me explain’’ mode. They inevitably begin by conceding half their opponents case for fear of losing all credibility. Consider the response of one pro-Israel student to a student campaign at Berkeley calling on the University of Californian to divest itself of over $6 billion in shares in companies dealing with Israel. He began by admitting that the plight of Palestinian refugees "is one of the greatest tragedies of the century.’’
While the Palestinian students speak with one uniform voice, in which Israel is solely responsible for all the ills of the Middle East, Jewish students cannot even ascertain any longer what it means to support Israel. Every one of the Palestinian claims is echoed by leading Jewish and Israeli intellectuals. Eight years of Oslo, according to George Will, has succeeded in "delegitimizing all previous [Israeli] positions . . . ‘’ The former vice-president of the Union of Jewish Students of the United Kingdom commented to me that the positions advanced against him in a debate with a Trotskyite in the ‘80s are almost identical to those of Yossi Beilin today.
Mainstream American Jewish organizations have played a major role in delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of American Jewry. Both the New Israel Fund and the Reform movement portray Israel as an encroaching theocracy for their own political purposes.
A letter writer to last Friday’s Post provides a good insight into the activities of the New Israel Fund, which raises over $20,000,000 annually from American Jews. Evalyn Segal describes how she was a "devout Zionist’’ until she made the "haj’’ to Israel on a 1989 NIF study tour and had her eyes opened to the "racist contempt of the Israel government . . . toward Palestinians [and] how the founders of Zionism schemed from the start to take over, by any means necessary, the whole of Palestine and to cleanse it of Palestinians.’’
One of NIF’s beneficiaries is the Israel-Palestine Friendship Center in Tel Aviv. The Center actively promotes the Palestinian "right of return’’ to their pre-1948 homes. Two weeks ago, Russian language journalist Israel Shamir told a largely Jewish audience, "Jews only exist to drip the blood of Palestinian children into their matzas.’’ No one protested.
Another NIF recipient is Bat Shalom. From 1994 to 1996, Bat Shalom campaigned for the release of Abi Waheidi, who led a terrorist cell that murdered Zvi Klein after stopping his car and dragging him from it.. After her release, Waheidi, who was praised by Arafat as the model Palestinian woman, vowed to continue her terrorist activities and refused to express regret for murdering Klein.
Jeffrey Halper of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, an NIF recommendee, travels throughout American with a Palestinian colleague denouncing the "Nazi’’ and "apartheid’’ house demolition policies of the Israel. Halper speaks sympathetically of his Palestinian allies who cannot agree to accept a two-state solution for fear of foreclosing a unitary state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
When the NIF agenda becomes mainstream for American Jewry, it is little wonder that Jewish students, if they identify with Israel at all, instinctively do so with the farthest left-wing positions.
Helen Davis, former head of the Britain-Israel Public Affairs Center (BIPAC), described in these pages recently how eager the mandarins of British Jewry were to jump on the "peace process’’ bandwagon. They were feted by Arafat and rewarded at home with peerages and other state honors. Increasingly, "they were embarrassed about defending Israel at all, particularly when [Likud] was in power.’’
When BIPAC raised the subject of Palestinian textbook anti-Semitism, noncompliance, media incitements, British communal leaders muttered and eventually stopped funding BIPAC, leaving British Jewry without a voicepiece when the Palestinians declared war before Rosh Hashana.
In America, a similar process took place. Charles Bronfman, as chairman of United Jewish Communities, tried to engineer the 1999 Isaiah Peace Award for Arafat. Jewish leaders found easy access to the White House and in return proclaimed President Clinton Israel’s best friend ever.
If Jewish multi-millionaires are so easily manipulated into abandanoning support for all traditional Israeli positions, how much more so will Jewish students, living on campuses where antipathy to Israel is widespread, seek to avoid identification with Israel
Even among Jewish student groups visiting Israel, reports David Olesker, who teaches Jewish advocacy, there is no longer an assumption that Israel needs or deserves defense. He was criticized as "one-sided’’ by Jewish students at University of Chicago for teaching only pro-Israel advocacy. One of the students told him that,unlike their Palestinian counterparts, Jewish students are not connected to their roots, and even embarrassed by them.
To avoid association with Israel, the most vulnerable Jewish students will do everything possible not to be identified as Jews at all. At a subconscious level, intermarriage serves as the most powerful statement of the intermarrying Jew’s rejection of his or her national identity.
Unless we can provide Jewish students with the means and ability to defend Israel’s right to exist, all the Birthright Programs in the world will not put back the humpty-dumpty of Jewish identity back together again.