Natan Sharansky deserves credit for having called attention to the low image of Israel on American university campuses, and to the vulnerable situation of Jewish students on those campuses. Last week’s gathering in Jerusalem of Jewish university students from around the world dealing with anti-Semitism on campus was a first step in addressing this problem.
Such programs, however, have to overcome the widespread apathy towards Israel of Jewish students themselves. After a tour of 13 American campuses, Sharansky estimated that no more than 10% of Jewish students are involved in any type of Jewish activity. ``The problem is not that Jewish students lack the facts," writes Shachar Yanai director of the student arm of WIZO, "it’s that they don’t care about them in the first place."
Though Jewish students greatly outnumber Arab and Moslem students on most campuses, the latter are highly involved in Middle Eastern politics. Moslem students speak with one voice, in which Israel is solely responsible for all the ills of the Middle East. Jewish students, by contrast, cannot even ascertain what it means to support Israel, when every Palestinian claim is echoed by leading Israeli politicians and intellectuals.
A Jewish student at the University of Chicago neatly summarized the nub of the problem: "Arab students are connected to their roots; we are not." The first question inevitably directed to anyone, such as myself, who attempts to teach pro-Israel advocacy is: "How do we know you are telling us the truth? We want to hear the Palestinian side as well." Fear of being propagandized does not similarly trouble Arab students.
The apathy and studied neutrality of Jewish students suggests that the battle for their allegiance is largely lost long before they get to college. It is crucial to understand why.
The vast majority of Jewish student have had no Jewish education. And those schooled by the liberal denominations have never heard much about the Jews being the Chosen People. That subject, like speaking against intermarriage, is virtually taboo. The most positive message conveyed about Judaism in American temples and Sunday schools is: Jews were the first to introduce such universal values as justice and morality.
That Jews were the bearers of certain universal values to the world, however, provides no justification for the continued existence of the Jewish people. Nor do some long ago common ancestors (recall that less than half of American "Jewish" children are raised in homes with two Jewish parents) provide much basis for American Jews to identify with Jews in Israel.
In a 1961 Commentary symposium "Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals," almost all the panelists treated "Jew" as, at best, a metaphor for the alienated intellectual. Jews’ status as victim was, in the intellectuals’ eyes, the most positive thing about them, for it imbued Jews with a special sensitivity to the socially downtrodden. The younger intellectuals professed no interest in their religion – either as students or practitioners – and no fear of intermarriage, either for themselves or their children. Even at a time when Israel was still viewed as a doughty David, the Jewish state failed to engage their interest.
Those attitudes describe the average Jewish student today even before he or she confronts the anti-Israeli hostility that is rampant on university campuses. Such students, lacking any particularistic Jewish identity, are hurt and angered to find themselves identified in the eyes of others with Israel, the most concrete expression of Jewish nationhood.
In an effort to avoid that association with Israel, some attempt to prove their progressive bona fides by leading the attacks on Israel. For others, the easiest way to shed one’s identification as a Jew, at least at a subconscious level, is through intermarriage.
In short, instead of their Jewishness predisposing Jewish students to identify with Israel, attacks on Israel are causing Jewish students to flee even further from any identification as Jews.