(February 22, 2019 / JNS)
For the past two decades, anti-Israel sentiment on campus has grown increasingly toxic. Groups that actively support the creation of a Palestinian state at the expense of a Jewish one routinely demonize Israel with apartheid walls, vocally protest against pro-Israel speakers, and promote student government BDS resolutions.
For both Jewish and non-Jewish students who know relatively little about the Jewish state or the Palestinian Authority, they must choose between the conflicting narratives of anti-Israel antagonists and pro-Israel activists. The chasms between the two sides run deep and many students simply choose to become disenfranchised with the conflict and therefore with the Jewish State.
Moreover, due to the growing polarization of politics, advocating for Israel has become uncomfortable for many liberal students, who don’t clearly understand if or where Israel fits into a paradigm of social justice. Many form snap opinions as to whether Israel is a colonial oppressor that violates the rights and ambitions of Palestinians or is the legitimate outgrowth of a centuries-old struggle by a liberal Jewish minority to achieve self-determination on its indigenous homeland.
According to Tim Cohen, senior vice president of Hillel International, the situation on campuses for Jewish students remains as complicated as ever. Yet Cohen warns that in the coming years “things may only get more difficult.”
BDS and declining student support for Israel
On the positive side, fighting against BDS has become more acceptable across the United States, with 26 states recently passing anti-BDS legislation and the U.S. Congress considering similar bills. Yet despite several recent victories, fighting campus BDS resolutions at numerous major American universities is extremely difficult, and securing victories does more than saving Israel from adverse economic measures.
“As an economic tool to punish Israel, BDS is an abject failure,” said David Brog, CEO of the Maccabee Task Force. “But as a political tool to change the way young, progressive Americans view Israel, well, you just have to look at the polling to see we have a very serious problem. We are losing support for Israel the younger you get demographically, losing support the further left you get.
“We live in a time where society is hyper-sensitive to racism. But we often turn a blind eye to racism against Jews,” Brog told JNS. “We want to revive a generation of Jews and non-Jewish allies that are willing to boldly fight for Israel.”
A new approach to addressing the conflict on campus recognizes that the overwhelming majority of students are neither naturally pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and most may never take a clear position. Rather, promoting the complexity of the conflict meets students in an intellectually honest comfort zone that is proving effective in diffusing delegitimization and demonization initiatives by Israel-bashers.
Brog explains that simply pointing out the extreme position of anti-Israel activists targeting Jews and Israel supporters goes a long way towards preventing the large and undecided middle ground from supporting BDS resolutions, which are considered a binary position on the conflict.
Rather, getting students to recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is multi-layered—whereby Israel is neither exclusively good or exclusively bad—is proving effective in diffusing previously uninformed anti-Israel sentiment. By acknowledging the complexities without the need to necessarily fully understand them, students become less likely to support one-sided ad hominem attacks against the Jewish state. And with a sustained long-term effort to engage students, some former Israel detractors are turning into valuable campus supporters.
“Intersectionality is a powerful force that is sort of on steroids in the age of Trump. And it is a force that has been very effective,” said Brog. While recognizing the difficulties that intersectionality poses, Brog notes that “some of the movement away from BDS is simply a movement towards intersectionality.”
A multi-pronged ‘action plan’
Brog addressed more than 400 Jewish campus professionals and pro-Israel student leaders from nearly 80 campuses who were gathered to share best practices on building support for Israel and fighting BDS resolutions at the fourth annual Maccabee Task Force Academy (MTF) in Las Vegas. Each of the organizations in attendance takes significant funding from MTF for activities to build support for Israel.
Without specifying precise figures, Brog notes that funding “tends to be above six figures per campus.”
MTF funds established campus pro-Israel organizations as part of a multi-pronged “action plan” that includes providing better training for each campus’ existing pro-Israel supporters, building wide coalitions with non-Jewish partners who are not necessarily natural Israel supporters and hosting events that celebrate positive aspects of Israel.
At the start of each academic year, MTF invites select pro-Israel organizations on each campus to an individualized action plan meeting, to hear from them what localized strategized they believe will be most effective. An important component of the MTF philosophy is that the situation on each campus is different from one to the next, including the number of Jewish students and the intensity of anti-Israel activities.
“An action plan meeting is basically an assembly of the leaders of the pro-Israel movement on campus,” Brog told JNS. “Typically, you’ll have anywhere from 10 to 30 campus leaders in a room. You’ll have the Hillel director, you’ll have the [Jewish Agency] Israel fellow. You’ll have the Chabad rabbi. If there is Students Supporting Israel, you’ll have their representative. Sometimes AEPi representatives are there. Mishelanu students come. We want the broadest coalition possible.
“And we start off the meeting asking if there is anything that you would all like to do to promote Israel on your campus or fight delegitimization of Israel on your campus that you can’t pay for,” said Brog. “And usually there will be two, three, four ideas that they come up with locally. We write them down, and we say, ‘Great. If you’ll do it, we’ll fund it.’ ”
Funding for all, except J Street U
The only Jewish campus organization that MTF outright refuses to directly fund is J Street U. Over the past several years, the Jewish and progressive J Street U has often been one of the most critical forces against Israel on university campuses, and at some universities has collaborated with Students for Justice in Palestine in protesting pro-Israel campus speakers and promoting BDS resolutions.
Yet the nationwide singling out of J Street U raised concerns with some students and Hillel professionals, who expressed their discomfort with MTF excluding the Jewish group. Some of the Hillels, themselves more progressive than conservative, openly cooperate and host programming with the J Street U chapter on their campuses, while simultaneously receiving MTF funding.
“I think excluding is not the right word,” said Brog. “I’m glad when a J Street student who might not otherwise do real pro-Israel activism or really fight BDS; I’m really glad if they want to come and be part of the action plan meeting and if they want to participate in what we do. The only thing we don’t do is fund J Street U. And I think that ruffles some feathers and hurts some feelings, but I don’t think there is a legitimate complaint there.”
Brog added that “the reason why we don’t give J Street U money is because we have a different philosophy. They think they are best serving Israel by generating pressure on the U.S. to pressure Israel. They think the best way to affect change is to criticize Israel. That is a legitimate disagreement. We’re not obligated to give everybody money.”
Who’s behind Maccabee Task Force?
Maccabee Task Force, which has in less than four years become one of the best-funded organizations working to promote Israel on campus, is backed by Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson. The annual MTF Academy was held at the Venetian Hotel and Casino owned by the Adelsons. In past years, the mega-philanthropists, who have provided millions to organizations like Birthright Israel and the Israeli American Council, have attended the MTF conference. The pair were scheduled to participate this year as well, although cancelled at the last minute.
The pro-Israel community on campus is generally pleased to receive growing funds from MTF, by way of the Adelsons, for activities promoting Israel and to defeat BDS resolutions.
During one session at the MTF Academy, Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers University Hillel, explained why Hillel directors in particular are happy to work with MTF. “I don’t have any single donor who gives as much money as you do,” said Getraer, noting that the funds go towards programs that they come up with themselves, as opposed to receiving funding for specific programs that are imposed by an outside organization.”
Shared learning via trial and error
Each campus creates their localized action plan, implements the plan, and reports back on successes and failures. And campus organizations are encouraged to take risks, when they believe the benefits of trying new ideas may lead to breakthroughs. The learning is then shared with other campuses, who can gain from the experiences of their colleagues.
“We know that everything we do is not a success,” Brog said, adding that being able to tap into an abundant source of funding enables them a lot of leeway with regard to trial and error.
Cohen, one of the senior Hillel International representatives in attendance, added that one of the strengths of MTF’s approach is “listening to the local Hillel first.”
Yet working with the campus groups to determine the local action plan provides strategic advantages as well as risks.
“The MTF model which is their No. 1 motto, which is really brilliant, is that ‘we don’t know your campus,” said Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, spiritual director at Chabad of NDG in Montreal and Jewish chaplain at Concordia University.
Bernath tells JNS that the selected organizations on any particular campus, including many university Hillels, which themselves may be promoting an increasingly progressive Jewish agenda that is inclusive of groups that do not always paint Israel in a positive light, may or may not be the best organizations to receive significant funds to promote Israel and actively fight BDS on their campus.
“Are the partners that MTF is choosing really trustworthy enough to know the campus?” asks Bernath. “They are putting a lot of blind faith into organizations that are saying, ‘We know what’s going on.’ But do those organizations really know what’s going on?”
Bernath noted that several campus Chabad centers participate in MTF programs, and there was a small but noteworthy contingent of Chabad rabbis at the MTF academy. Still, the group was well outnumbered by Hillel directors. While several Chabad centers have taken up pro-Israel advocacy in recent years, many others prefer to steer their activities clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel trip for non-Jewish campus leaders
One of the newest tools that MTF offers is a trip for non-Jewish campus leaders to Israel. Unlike well-known trips including Birthright, each campus trip takes students into the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants visit the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, and major Israeli cities to get multiple views on the conflict, so they can hear an array of voices and opinions and process the information for themselves.
“The students are handpicked because they are leaders on campus who are not Jewish,” said Ed Rosenthal, executive director and campus rabbi of the Suncoast Hillels in South Florida. “They are influencers on the campus who only hear the side from the anti-Israel students.”
Rosenthal said students who go on the trip are selected for their potential to become allies with the pro-Israel community that positively influence other students, affect the overall campus environment and help oppose BDS resolutions over the next several years.
“We just did the trip a month ago. We were very lucky to have this opportunity to take students to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority,” said Ilya Bratman, executive director of Hillel at Baruch College in New York.
“There is nothing like this trip that actually activates these students that I have seen. It is the most impactful thing I think I do on campus,” Bratman told JNS.
“To have them physically be brought to these places—listening to real people in real places—and then have the ability to reflect and analyze, and have those long conversations on the bus and at night, and then take it with them to campus … there is nothing else that can do this on this deep level and significantly,” said Bratman.
Conservative dollars and liberal sensitivities
The trip and MTF’s source of funding is a sensitive topic for many of the campus organizations, which tailor their efforts towards liberal students. The Adelsons and Brog are noted Republican supporters, with Adelson contributing significant funding to the Trump presidential inauguration as well as Trump’s legal defense team.
Some of the 80 participating campuses have stressed that they prefer not to be publicly linked to MTF or the Adelsons, so as not to deter liberal non-Jewish students from participating.
One Hillel Director, on a campus that has proven particularly hostile and asked not to be identified, told JNS, “Our campus is very polarized, and we are a very liberal campus. And so for us, we really need to keep the name Sheldon Adelson out of it, because we really need students to go on this trip and understand the issue.”
Each campus trip includes five Jewish campus professionals and pro-Israel students, and 25 non-Jewish student leaders. Recruiting students is a sensitive process that can be easily swayed by external political considerations.
“I saw after going on this trip this summer the way students’ walls came down,” the Hillel director said. “I saw the way they started to change, and come back to campus and bring their experience into the student senate. And if they connected that with a very conservative, right-wing organization, they may not have the same feeling about it.”
The director noted that they succeeded in recruiting a student from the Muslim Student Association to attend the trip, and the success of that initiative had a positive ripple effect that brought the Jewish and Muslim student communities closer together.
“This is something that would not have happened if this student did not go on this trip this summer,” the director told JNS, along with a request to keep identifying details down to a minimum.
According to another campus Hillel director, “Last year we said the trip was made available by an anonymous donor. “We’re proud to be part of the Maccabee Task Force, and we’ll deal with the backlash when the campus knows about it.”
Yet Brog is comfortable with the way each local campus wants to promote or conceal their association with MTF.
“Almost all of the campuses are taking advantage of the trip. They like the trip and for good reason: It is extraordinarily effective. But the fact that it is part of a much broader strategic plan to build coalitions, to map the campus, to identify which students and which organizations are influential within the campus political debate, and then to figure out how to reach them, build relationships with them, do follow-up with the whole community, that’s what really leverages the impact of the trip. So we stress that the trip is only a piece, albeit a critical piece, of a much larger strategy.”