(November 1, 2019 / JNS) In the past two decades, one of the most critical frontlines of pro-Israel advocacy has been the college campus. Today, a number of passionate and dedicated organizations work in this space to counter the virulent anti-Israel movement found at many universities in North America.
With this presence, some U.S.-based pro-Israel organizations are now turning their sights on Europe in an attempt to tackle what many feel is a significantly more difficult environment for supporters of Israel.
The Maccabee Task Force has recently announced that it will expand into 11 universities in Europe in six countries.
“This year we will be on over 100 North American campuses; we are almost on all the campuses that meet of criteria of support. What we saw abroad was a significant need,” said CEO David Brog, noting that MTF focuses on campuses with a “serious” BDS threat and ones that will produce “tomorrow’s leaders and influencers.”
Launched in 2015, the Maccabee Task Force goal is focused on combating the BDS movement by investing directly in Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, while building a broader consensus supporting Israel on campus.
After its initial foray into six campuses in 2016, the Maccabee Task Force has rapidly expanded each school year, with a current presence on 80 campuses across North America.
“We had another very good year last year. We were able to support more than 1,200 pro-Israel events on our 80 campuses,” said Brog. “We were able to bring 1,500 campus leaders and influencers to Israel. That, to us, is a significant investment. Nobody else is bringing that number of campus leaders to Israel, and these are primarily non-Jews as well.”
Brog said of the 80 campuses they operated on last year, just seven schools held BDS votes, with only one passing a BDS resolution.
The success comes as Israel-related anti-Semitism is becoming more prevalent on North American college campuses.
In September, the AMCHA Initiative found that the number of Israel-related, anti-Semitic incidents against Jewish students on campuses increased 70 percent from 2017 to 2018.
MTF’s expansion into Europe likely comes with challenges not seen in North America. For starters, the Jewish population in Europe is much smaller than it is in the United States, with much larger Muslim communities in some Western European countries that are typically less sympathetic to Israel. While anti-Semitism is on the rise in North America, many Western European countries have been dealing with record numbers of anti-Jewish sentiments and attacks for a long time now.
The task force is funded by Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson, mega-philanthropists who have given millions to Birthright Israel, the Israeli-American Council and other Jewish organizations.
Pro-Israel groups underfunded in Europe
At the same time, overall pro-Israel public sentiment in the United States is much higher than it is in Europe. Ireland, for example, has one of the strongest pro-BDS movements in Europe, and similarly in the United Kingdom, where students face a very virulent BDS movement and a major anti-Semitism scandal within with Labour Party. All this translates into a more hostile environment on campus for pro-Israel students and less established organizational support.
“When we analyzed the situation abroad, many said it was too late for Europe, and that BDS has won. But what we found is that it is much more nuanced than that,” said Brog.
The task force has plans to expand into 11 universities in Europe in six countries.
“Actually, to their credit, at a lot of the most prestigious schools in Europe, they are actually better and more subtle to their approach on issues related to Israel than U.S. campuses,” he said. “They behave how I would expect elite students to behave; they say ‘nothing is black and white, I am not going to be sheep led by propaganda, I want to learn more about this complex region’ than the BDS supporters would claim. BDS is not as far ahead as one might expect over there; in fact, there is a real opportunity to compete in the marketplace of ideas.”
Brog also noted the potential to make a real impact with pro-Israel students and Jewish organizations in Europe. “We found that most Israel groups had incredibly low budgets and were resource-poor. We saw immediately an opportunity that we didn’t realize exists. We hope to have an outsized influence for our investment,” he said.
“We are going to test it; we are going to start on 11 campuses in six foreign countries. And if these investments bear fruit and are productive, I can see us expanding abroad.”
Brog declined to name the six countries and campuses ahead of time, citing the desire to avoid “inadvertently making life more difficult for our partners abroad.”
Replicating success of Israel trips in Europe
In North America, one of the signature initiatives of the task force has been its sponsored trips to Israel.
Unlike Birthright, which is exclusively for people with Jewish heritage, the MTF trips include recruiting emerging non-Jewish campus leaders to see Israel and Palestinian areas firsthand on fact-finding trips that include a visit to Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, as well as to the Palestinian Authority. This is part of an effort to establish a broad-based coalition of support for Israel on campus beyond just Jewish or pro-Israel organizations.
“We are investing in changing the attitudes of those who dominate the politics on campus,” said Brog, “not only to create a situation where supporters of Israel can do so publicly, but to also to do so publicly with critical support from other campus organizations and leaders.”
As such, he hopes to replicate the success of the Israel trips in Europe.
Brog, who said he will be departing soon on a “fact-finding” trip to European schools, says he is looking forward to hearing firsthand how his organization can help.
“I am very curious to learn about the situations on their campuses,” he said, “to hear what they think will be effective on their campuses. And like North America, to fund the groups for what they want to do. Of course, the one big thing we are doing in North America, the Israel trip, is that they are excited about.”
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