American Jews are very good at ignoring the obvious, but they can at least
give themselves credit for being smart enough to understand that their house is
on fire, just as the flames are starting to toast their toes.
Case in point is the fact that lately, we have gradually come to terms with
the fact most American college campuses were hothouses for anti-Israel bigotry.
That this realization occurred long after the problem became serious is
besides the point. Incidents last year, such as the anti-Jewish violence at places
like San Francisco State University or Concordia University in Montreal, have
created enough of a stir to put this issue on the communal radar screen.
That's the good news. The bad news is that students who support Israel are
still placed in the position of a precarious and unpopular minority as
anti-Zionist radicals on faculties and in the student body make it hard to stand up for
Predictably, there is division in our ranks as to what created this situation.
'JEWS OF SILENCE'
Former Soviet refusenik and current Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky
wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv about his recent tour of American
campuses and the sorry state of Jewish activism.
The picture he paints is a gloomy one, in which colleges are virtually "enemy
territory" for affiliated Jews. Even worse, he returned to Israel with the
impression that most young Jews had opted out of the struggle. Though a few
were standing up for Zionism (and a smaller minority were anti-Israel), most were
on the sidelines, afraid to speak up because to do so might damage their
grades and their academic futures, not to mention their social standing.
To Sharansky, the overwhelming majority of young American Jews are
contemporary "Jews of silence" in contrast with the more vocal Jewish activists of 20
and 30 years ago. That's a telling phrase, since it was also the title of the
1966 book by Elie Wiesel that helped launch the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
Sharansky blames the current situation on Arab influence in the makeup of
Middle East Studies departments and effective public relations work by the
But to liberal activist and columnist Leonard Fein, the blame for the
decline of support for Israel has less to do with Arab propaganda than it
does with reasonable criticism of Israel's positions.
In his attack on Sharansky's position, Fein acknowledges that there are many
on campus who oppose Israel's existence under any circumstances. But he feels
it is primarily Israel's fault that young Jews won't support it. For him,
"excesses in Israel's actions" and "the real suspicions fair-minded people
harbor regarding Israel's motives and intentions," explain hostility to the Jewish
According to Fein, if Israel were a good liberal state, accommodating
Palestinian ambitions and not run by the likes of Ariel Sharon, then more Jews would
be behind it.
The problem with this argument is that it flies in the face of the facts of
the last decade. During this time, Israeli governments of both the left and the
right have made a string of concessions to the Palestinians. But Oslo did not
set off a wave of pro-Israel sentiment on campuses in the 1990s, nor did the
fact that Israel offered the Palestinians what they demanded in July 2000
and were answered by terrorist warfare.
In fact, just the opposite has happened. As Israel moved to a point where
even Sharon has come to terms with the eventual necessity of a Palestinian state,
anti-Israel sentiment has grown by leaps and bounds. Indeed, the more it
became apparent to those who were truly fair-minded that Israel was the victim and
not the aggressor, the more intense the assault of lies about Israeli
"excesses" has become.
Instead, anti-Israel forces in the media and academia have seized upon the
conflict to heighten their abuse, and attacks on Israel's existence are now far
more commonplace than they were before Oslo.
But while Sharansky is right about the extent of the problem, his nostalgia
for campus Jewish activism of the past is a bit misplaced. As much as we need
to draw on the successes of that era, it would be a mistake to buy into the
notion that Jewish students were united behind the Soviet Jewry movement or any
other Jewish cause.
MYTHS ABOUT THE PAST
In fact, it was just as hard, and often just as unfashionable, for students
to support Jewish causes then as it is today. Although the majority of Jews
were supportive of the cause at the very end of the struggle for Soviet Jewry,
those who were screaming about it in the early 1970s were a tiny minority, both
on and off the campuses.
And though Israel was less unpopular then than it is today, the idea that
all, or even most Jewish students, were unified in solidarity with its struggle
to survive is also something of a myth.
The majority of Jewish students then, as is the case now, were far more
interested in the fashionable left. Their cause célèbre was either Vietnam, or
apartheid, not Israel or Soviet Jewry. Today, you are more likely to get Jewish
students to attend a rally opposing the war in Iraq (which toppled an
anti-Semitic dictator) than you would to hear an Israeli like Shimon Peres, whose views
conform to Fein's vision of what Israel ought to be.
However, Sharansky is on target when he notes that the structure of academic
study has changed for the worse. The rise of Middle Eastern studies as a
separate discipline has coincided with the advent of a generation of scholars who
are anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian in their orientation.
They succeeded because they were able to tap into the same vein of
anti-American leftism that transformed campuses in the 1960s. As faculties became more
hostile to those who disagreed with the left, support for Israel has become as
unfashionable and academically perilous in many instances as support for
George W. Bush.
The unavoidable truth is that college students will always find it hard to
stand against the tide of what is the conventional wisdom of the day. For most
students, being for Israel simply isn't cool. And so long as the Palestinians
are embraced by the political left and Israel is identified with the United
States Zionism will find few friends on the quad.
Changing this will require not merely more Jewish programming, but a
counter-revolution aimed at stiffening the resolve of Jewish students, striking back
against Israel's detractors and pointing out their hypocrisy and mendacity.
But until we reject the notion that Israel itself is to blame for the
assaults on its existence, we haven't a chance.