A generation ago, Jewish students stormed the citadels of American Jewish
power, intent on changing the way our institutions did business.
The focus of the Jewish students of the 1970s was on getting a tired and
disengaged organizational world to speak up about the plight of Soviet Jewry, and
to infuse more Jewish sensibilities and practice into the arid and elitist
alphabet-soup groups that composed the establishment of that time. Jewish kids
wanted action and bold leadership.
Though it was often hard to discern then, the protests were heard, and, over
the course of time, had a tremendous impact on Jewish life in this country.
What are Jewish students complaining about today?
To listen to some of the young people I met at the annual plenum of the
Jewish Council for Public Affairs this week, you'd think their main problem is just
the opposite they believe the organized Jewish world is pressuring them for
more activism than they find comfortable.
To be more specific, what they are uncomfortable with is what they perceive
as a mandate to march in lockstep with the Israeli government and to be gung-ho
supporters of anything undertaken by the Jewish state.
An unscientific poll of students who attended a session on how groups should
deal with dissent on Israel seemed to indicate that they felt themselves
particularly queasy about unapologetic advocacy for Israel. I'm not sure that
these kids were that representative. Yet it was significant that many of those I
talked with felt that Hillel, the main focus of Jewish life on campus, was too
Israel-centric. As one young campus activist put it, students needed a "safe
place" to be Jewish that didn't necessarily include support for, let alone
advocacy for, Israel.
But even for those who didn't wish to divorce themselves from Israel, a
distinct distaste for anything that smacked of allegiance to the position of the
government led by Ariel Sharon rippled above the surface.
PRESSURE TO CONFORM
What they wanted was the freedom to express opposition to policies such as
the security fence and settlements, and what they consider harsh treatment of
Palestinians by Israel.
Their point was that American college campuses are places where hostility to
Israel runs deep. So in order to influence those who are not already
supportive of Israel a group that may well include the majority of Jewish students
what they need to do is to soft-pedal advocacy and make it clear that they
stand apart from the "hard-core" Jewish position.
Yet interestingly, the culprit for them was not the atmosphere of bias
against Israel but what they consider an oppressively pro-Israel agenda that was
being foisted upon them. As one participant in the panel on this topic put it,
there was "a lot of pain" expressed by these students.
I can sympathize to a certain extent with their dilemma. But only to a point.
Because if these kids think they are feeling pain, how would they
characterize the emotions of an Israeli people that has undergone 31/2 years of a
Palestinian terrorist war that has taken nearly 1,000 Jewish lives?
I don't doubt that advocacy for Israel can help isolate them at school.
Nobody wants to be considered hopelessly out of touch with the spirit of their own
time. But my not-very-comforting response to these students is that sometimes,
that's just what the situation requires.
As one young woman pointed out, the dominant "liberal politics" of the
campus "dictates it's not okay to be pro-Israel." My response is that if that is
true, then the fault lies with campus "liberal politics," and not with Israel.
Even more to the point, I have to wonder why some of these students feel that
the only way they can successfully engage the virulent opponents of Zionism
at their schools is by joining in the chorus of criticism of Israeli policies.
Israel is an imperfect society, and its politics are rife with all of the
usual corruptions and inefficiencies that bedevil any democracy. It has its own
diverse political culture, and there is nothing said here about it that isn't a
distant echo of some internal Israeli debate.
But none of those concerns have anything to do with the basic argument of the
Arab-Israeli conflict: whether or not the Jews have a right to live in peace
and sovereignty in their ancient homeland. And it is that point and not the
disputes about the legality of settlements and the location of a security
fence that are at stake here.
WHAT KIND OF DIALOGUE?
If the only kind of Jewish state that a student can support is one that is
perfect or at least in conformity with the sensibilities of the American
political left then what we are effectively saying is that it isn't possible to
support any kind of Jewish state.
And why is it that Israel's campus foes are not similarly inclined to note
the shortcomings of the Palestinians?
If a Jewish student wishes to engage in dialogue with a pro-Palestinian
group, then I say, by all means, speak out about all of your criticisms of Sharon
and Israel. But do so only if your dialogue partners are willing to stipulate
that the Palestinian Authority is a corrupt, terrorist mafia that routinely
abuses the human rights of its own people.
If they are not willing to do that, and if, in fact, they take the position
that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state, I have to ask why any
Jewish student feels the need to establish common ground with them.
And the idea that Jewish organizations are pressuring these students is
farcical. The truth is, groups like Hillel welcome anyone who wants to connect with
other Jewish kids, with no Sharon loyalty pledges required. The real pressure
being felt by some of these Jewish students is the need to conform to
left-wing campus fashion.
Despite what I heard from some at the plenum, I still think most Jewish
students want to embrace Israel and are willing to speak out in its defense. Those
who are unafraid to speak out against the lies and invective of the
anti-Israel crowd, even when this faction is led (as it is, more often than not) by
faculty rather than other students deserve every bit of help we can give them.
As for the pain felt by those whose views keep them on the sidelines of the
debate, I say get over it.
Or even better, start questioning your own political