What's Wrong with Advice for Dealing with Zionophobia on Campus

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Observations from Columbia University Campus

This article was first published in parts (part1, part2, part3) in the Elder of Ziyon blog.

Thank you John Kovac and Naomi Cohn for many helpful edits.

What is the more likely reality on campus?

A toxic anti-Israel climate on college campuses is on the rise. This increase in Zionophobia is a source of anxiety to Jewish students and their parents. Students are wondering what awaits them on campus and how to best navigate the hostile environment of academia. Parents are wondering what can be done to protect their children and combat Jew hatred at their school. With the next school year approaching, there has been no dearth of advice from professional advice-givers of mainstream Jewish organizations and well-meaning intellectuals. But how effective has this avalanche of advice been?

Recently I read a blog in the Times of Israel entitled "Before you head to campus, read this." The author acknowledges that "many campuses have become ground-zero for anti-Israel activism" and advises pro-Israel students "to be knowledgeable enough, open to talking with others in your circle, willing to grapple with complexity, and confidently owning your identity." When it comes to Israel, the advice is to "discuss with nuance and sophistication, not bombast" and to "understand that there is more to every student than where they stand on this issue. Disagreements on Israel shouldn’t be the only thing keeping individuals or student groups from interacting."

In broad daylight on Broadway in front of the main entrance to Columbia University campus. This is the reality of Jewish experience on a toxic anti-Israel campus. As a Jewish student, are you prepared to see this at the main entrance to your campus?

It is solid advice that might work well on campuses where pro-Israel students are confronted by peers who, as the TOI piece states, "may have never met a Jew before and for whom Israel is simply a faraway country." If only such open-minded peers who are genuinely ignorant about Israel were the main problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality on many problematic campuses and this sensible advice has a fatal flaw as it presupposes that one's opponents are acting in good faith, i.e., that they are fair people, sincere in their beliefs, open to examining whether these beliefs are based on the truth, and are willing to change their minds if shown contrary facts. If only it were possible to prevail in arguments by "discuss[ing] [Israel] with nuance and sophistication" as the article recommends. If only it were possible to educate by a calm presentation of facts and reason. If only it were possible to win sympathy by explaining what Israel means to the Jewish people who were exiled by the Romans and persecuted in the Diaspora. If only it were possible to win admiration by extolling the miraculous success of the tiny nation of refugees who, surrounded by enemies, overcame tremendous odds and who, by sheer hard work and intellectual brilliance, created amazing technologies and medical breakthroughs benefiting the entire world. If only it were possible to win empathy by pointing out how Israel has been always the first nation to help in a disaster, even when the disaster strikes its enemies. If only it were possible to win hearts and minds by dispelling lies. If only...

The level of Zionophobia fueled by BDS-inspired Jew hatred is not the same on every campus. Anti-Israel activities are concentrated in a small number of prestigious campuses popular with Jewish students; the larger the Jewish student population the more pervasive is the anti-Israel hostility. The worst anti-Israel schools tend to be prominent, prestigious universities that wield enormous influence and generate the largest amount of publicity. Averaging anti-Israel sentiment of Columbia University which had 108 incidents recorded by AMCHA or New York University which had 75 incidents with Appalachian State University which had 4 incidents or Bradley University which had 1 incident distorts the reality. It tempers what it feels like to be an isolated pro-Israel student on a campus with an active pro-BDS movement fueled by aggressive chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow and J Street U, where professors are anti-Israel propagandists, where Hillel eschews involvement beyond anodyne statements and serving Shabbat dinners to avoid antagonizing their liberal donors, and where the administrators—the supposed "adults in the room"—are intimidated by, if not openly complicit with, the students and faculty claiming for themselves the exclusive right to be the arbiters of human rights and social justice.

Anti-Israelism on campus is pervasive.

As a Jew, how comfortable are you walking by the Apartheid Wall as this one at Columbia University?

To appreciate the intensity of what pro-Israel students face on an actively anti-Israel campus, watch this excerpt from an excellent documentary "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus" or consider an article from the New York Post entitled "Israeli student at Columbia says she’s being bullied by Palestinian group" that stated,

"Ofir, the 24-year-old daughter of Israel Consul General in New York Dani Dayan, said she is harassed and threatened over her background by the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and that the school is failing to protect her. 'SJP is violent,' she said. 'I’m worried about my personal safety.' The political science major had her initial run-in about a month into the fall 2017 semester, when she was in the lobby of Knox Hall — home to the Middle East Institute — having a phone conversation in Hebrew. 'A girl heard me and started screaming, "Stop killing Muslim ­babies! . . . You’re a murderer!" Ofir said. 'Then she screamed, "Zionist, get out!" A nearby public-safety ­administrator did nothing.'"

If you really want to know how it feels to be a pro-Israel student on a hostile anti-Israel campus imagine the opprobrium, scorn, animosity, ostracism, ridicule, harassment, and insults anyone openly advocating racist, misogynistic or homophobic views would face on a liberal campus. It is not an exaggeration. Israel is accused of every imaginable crime, such as apartheid, genocide, organ trafficking, testing weapons on children, testing drugs on Palestinian prisoners, stealing Palestinian water, poisoning Palestinian wells, raping Palestinian women and not raping Palestinian women (both accusations were made by the same academic!), police brutality against African Americans in the US—you name it—by the virulently anti-Israel academics and semi-professional student agitators, and not a word of criticism from the school's administration who routinely ignore or dismiss student complaints.

It is no surprise that in an environment like this students who express sympathy for Israel are treated as evil supporters of a bloodthirsty regime that has no right to exist and needs to be exterminated together with its supporters. Are these the people to whom the pro-Israel students are supposed to listen and with whom they are expected to engage in nuanced conversations?

It is common wisdom that approximately 10% of students on a typical campus are committed supporters of Israel and 20% of students are committed anti-Zionists whose minds cannot be changed by facts or arguments. Therefore, pro-Israel students have been advised to concentrate on winning over the remaining 70% of the undecided. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes that the "undecided" are unbiased and would be potentially interested in joining either side if it were not for their ignorance. However, there are other, more significant reasons why these students have not taken sides. Many are apathetic and not interested in Israeli-Palestinian issues; their minds cannot be changed by any tactic that requires an investment of effort to learn the truth. The rest feel that joining the pro-Israel side would be uncool and would damage their social standing. This is where the perverse notion of intersectionality—pervasive on campus but largely ignored by liberal professional advice-givers—plays a huge role. The threat of this pernicious ideology that aligns every group against Jews cannot be overstated. To be a part of social justice circles students must demonstrate that they are anti-Israel.

Intersectionality is a key reason why pro-Israel Jews have lost ground on campus and in society at large. By using intersectionality, Islamists have hijacked the good intentions of otherwise decent people and have made antisemitism palatable. By linking together unrelated—often contradictory—grievances, Islamists have weaponized intersectionality and have infiltrated every social justice movement, assigning every possible nasty quality to Israel supporters—and Jews in general—in order to exclude them from participation in social justice causes. By positioning anti-Zionism as a purely political issue Islamists inoculated themselves against legitimate charges of antisemitism or racism.

"Denying Jewish people the right for nationhood is straight racism, not anti-Semitism. Jews fight Zionophobia by labeling it anti-Semitism, which is a mistake. It is so easily deflected by saying ‘My best friends are Jewish’ or ‘I’ll go to prison to defend a Jew’s right to wear a yarmulke or eat kosher food’ but still want Israel to be abolished." Professor Judea Pearl

By combining intersectionality with what they falsely claim to be a "political disagreement", Islamists defanged traditional tactics that relied on shaming and social pressure. Together with the identitarian progressives, Islamists undermined and inverted Western social norms that open liberal societies traditionally used to restrain the virus of hate. Thus, once the scarlet letter had been blotted out, it became impossible to generate bad publicity to inflict reputational damage on universities promoting or tolerating Zionophobia. As long as the universities could plausibly claim to be on the forefront of other social justice causes—such as diversity and inclusion—and as long as their faculty and students were careful to lambast "Zionists" rather than "Jews," they were insulated from ignominy and were free to spread the new antisemitism. The antisemitic absolution has been purchased with intersectional indulgence that allowed to slander, demonize, delegitimize, and apply a double standard to the only Jewish state in the world and the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. The problem with academia goes deeper than Zionophobia, but antipathy to Jews and Israel—"the Jew among nations"—is usually the first manifestation.

Despite a mountain of advice, Zionophobia on campuses has been getting worse and more virulent. One would think that this calls for some introspection and that the professional advice-givers would step back and evaluate why the trend continues in the wrong direction. Perhaps, instead of the same old "more education", "more engagement", "more listening", "more nuance", "more positivity", "more Israel-is-cool" advice, it would pay to first determine why the advice given so far has not produced the expected results? Sadly, this is either not happening or, if it is, no new strategies based on data-driven assessments and results-oriented success metrics have been implemented.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." ― Winston Churchill

Bizarrely, some professional advice-givers disregard overwhelming evidence and believe that the situation on campus has actually improved. A year ago another member of Columbia University's chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) and I met with the National Campus Outreach Director of a major Jewish organization to discuss potential synergies. During the unproductive and frustrating conversation, we were repeatedly advised to let the "professionals" handle the situation on our campus because, having attended numerous conferences, they were better equipped for it. We were told that the role of alumni should be limited to supporting functions, specifically, to exhibiting their materials and promoting this particular organization on Columbia's prestigious campus. After an hour of getting nowhere, we asked in exasperation whether the National Campus Outreach Director thought that the situation on campus improved over the last one, three, or five years due to the strategies she was advocating. To our amazement the Director indeed believed that the situation on campus had improved because she and her colleagues had done an effective job. At this point we politely said "thank you" and walked out. This is what is called "drinking too much of one's own Kool-Aid."

Pro-Israel students are constantly bombarded by negative messages about Israel. Here are the posters from the Israeli Apartheid Week at Columbia University (for more information on these items click on each image or here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).

Besides a delusional lack of self-assessment, pro-Israel advocacy on campus suffers from stale, ineffective strategies and defensive, measured tactics that make the pro-Israel advocates—both students and adults—appear tentative. These approaches are no match for the brazen commitment of the obnoxious anti-Israel brigade.

So here is different advice.

Advice for Pro-Israel Students

  • If you cannot stand being unpopular or if your priority is to participate in social justice causes with groups hostile to Israel, then hide your pro-Israel sympathies and avoid pro-Israel advocacy. This may seem like a contrarian advice, but not every student wishes to be hassled or has the guts to confront haters. Many Jewish students are in college to learn and to get a degree. Nothing is wrong with that. On most campuses, Jewish students who do not express pro-Israel sentiments publicly will not be harassed. Not yet, anyway. If this applies to you, sorry for having wasted your time, please skip the rest. Otherwise, read on...

On a hostile anti-Israel campus images of "Israeli brutality" and calls for sanctions are pervasive. They are inescapable in study halls, libraries, lectures, guest seminars, and even on lampposts surrounding the campus (for more information on these items click each image or here: 1, 2, 3)