In the ever-challenging world of Israel advocacy, even positive experiences can serve as wake-up calls.
I had the unique opportunity of traveling to three U.S. college campuses to take part in their celebrations for Israel’s 70th Independence Day, and to assess the climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students at those schools.
All three—Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Pennsylvania State University—are among the more than 160 schools across North America that are holding Tel Aviv-themed beach parties in April for this milestone Israeli Independence Day. The “Celebrate 70” events—a collaboration between AEPi (the world’s Jewish college fraternity) and other pro-Israel organizations—are showcasing the positive energy and pride emanating from the Jewish state and its supporters to engage and inspire students who have little or no knowledge of Israel. The events are providing a powerful counter-narrative to a campus discourse in recent years that has been driven by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions, anti-Semitic assaults and displays, and the suppression of pro-Israel students’ free speech.
As intended, the celebrations have set an Israel-positive tone that resembles the good vibes of a day on the beach while performing the crucial work of educating students who might be generally supportive of Israel, but who still have much to learn about the Jewish state’s remarkable people, extraordinary accomplishments and dynamic culture.
Michigan State’s student body is approximately 8 percent Jewish with a small Muslim enrollment, and student political opinion trends conservative. There have been no reported incidents of BDS and anti-Semitism during the last decade on campus. The students I met were friendly towards Israel, but largely apathetic about world affairs. The school has strong AEPi and Hillel chapters that drive Jewish life on campus.
Wayne State has roughly 2 percent Jewish enrollment, with political opinions trending liberal. The school has substantial Arab and Muslim enrollment, particularly students from the nearby cities of Flint and Dearborn. In contrast to Michigan State, Wayne State students were very much up to date on world affairs. While we had been concerned that engaging Arab and Muslim students in discourse about Israel might cause tension, only one of the more than 20 Muslim students we spoke with was adversarial about Israel.
Penn State has about 12 percent Jewish enrollment, with student opinion split virtually equally between the conservative and liberal camps. Yet the political divide and an active political scene have not resulted in troubles for Israel on the campus nicknamed “Happy Valley,” with little to report in the way of BDS or anti-Semitism. During my visit, as the Jewish community sang “Happy Birthday” to Israel near the HUB-Robeson Center arena, two tents of Muslim students enjoyed themselves in the afternoon sun.
Amid the overwhelmingly positive visits on all three campuses, my most important takeaway was that Israel awareness is dramatically needed at American colleges and universities.
The beach parties were tremendously uplifting and were an ideal segue to deeper dialogue about Israel, with the educational materials we provided about the Jewish state serving as the foundation for some thought-provoking discourse.
As students’ eyes lit up when they heard about Israel, I was reminded that this light not only represents happiness, but unawareness. Too many students—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—were genuinely surprised to learn about Israel’s world-changing advances in technology, medicine, the environment and other sectors, as well as its awe-inspiring record on LGBT rights and women’s rights in a Middle East region that persecutes those populations. Israel’s accomplishments are well-publicized among the country’s base of strong supporters in North America, but perhaps we are not doing enough to educate the masses. Preaching to the choir is not enough.
Looking ahead to the next 70 years, Israel’s advocates in the Diaspora will know that they have done their job on campuses and in other communities if fewer eyes light up when we speak about the Jewish state’s positive attributes. The proper and typical reaction should be a nod of the head—a simple acknowledgment of reality. Only then, we will know that the world knows the truth about Israel.
Andy Borans is the executive director of AEPi.