What I learned lecturing on Israel and the Middle East at Columbia and Yale

Despite campus hostility, there are still many students willing to listen to facts and honest analysis.

Pulitzer Hall at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Pulitzer Hall at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, senior security editor of The Jerusalem Report and a contributor to The Hill and The Jerusalem Post. He regularly briefs member of Congress and their foreign policy advisers about the Middle East.

A professional in the pro-Israel world read that I had lectured at his and his son’s alma mater, Columbia University. He wanted to know what kind of reception I received, what I spoke about and what questions I was asked. Then other readers reached out who were concerned with the atmosphere on American campuses and asked me to write an article about my experience.

When I spoke, I began by saying that my goal is to share information in context, with analysis based on my first-hand experiences. I asked the students to challenge their preconceived notions and form their own judgments, knowing that 91% of Middle East “scholars” favor boycotting Israel. Unfortunately, today’s college educators are more political activists than educators.

My talk was entitled, “Israel Challenges 2023: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas/P.A., Antisemitism, the Israeli Election and U.S.-Israel Relations.”

The most prominent concern for the students was the new Israeli government. Like many Americans, they were concerned about two far-right candidates and whether they would harm Israel’s democracy and judiciary, straining its relationship with the U.S.

They knew that soon-to-be ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are lightning rods for a nationalist agenda and had disparaged Arabs and liberal Diaspora Jews. The students were concerned about Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s power over the police, their ability to legalize illegal settlements and their demand to override the Supreme Court with a simple majority vote of the Knesset.

I told them Israeli politics has always been a fractious, tumultuous tug-of-war melee with no one party ever receiving a majority vote. However, there is a big difference between harshly criticizing Israel for policies they disagree with and using politicians like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as a weapon to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.

I pointed out that when we strongly disagree with what’s being done in other countries, we object to the language or the actions, but no one denies that China, Russia or Iran has a right to exist. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, we will judge the new Israeli government by its policies, not by its coalition members.

Walter Russell Mead, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said, “To argue that the Jewish state must continually earn the right to exist by satisfying its moral critics and political opponents is absurd. People criticize Chinese actions in Xinjiang and Tibet without saying that those misdeeds deprive the Chinese people of the right to a state of their own. The Palestinian plight is real, and criticism of Israel is not unwarranted … but Israel’s legitimacy doesn’t need to be earned. The new anti-Zionism, however, is becoming entrenched among many American progressives … on-campus individual American Jews are being challenged to earn their way into progressive respectability by dissociating themselves from the Jewish state and the Jewish national movement.”

I told the students that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu will be the most left-wing member of his government. He is likely to be a moderating voice compared to his problematic partners, albeit a right-wing one. Netanyahu is also thinking about his legacy.

There is little doubt that Netanyahu’s government will do and say many things that will upset students on U.S. university campuses, many American Jews, the Reform and Conservative movements and members of the Democratic Party, even those in the party’s mainstream.

However, those who care about Israel need to realize that, if they relegate Israel to the status of a pariah state, its enemies in Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas will be dangerously encouraged. Daylight between the U.S. and Israel will be perceived as weakness. It must be clear that Israel’s swing to the right isn’t the chance these enemies have been waiting for to annihilate Israel while its erstwhile allies look the other way.

The students seemed surprised when I showed them the following:

  1. How deep and sophisticated Hezbollah’s tunnels constructed under Israel’s northern border really were.
  2. How enormous Iran’s underground missile and nuclear tunnels are in Natanz.
  3. My pictures of the displacement of the Yazidis because of Iran’s control of Iraqi militias in Sinjar province.
  4. Evidence of the potential for the resurrection of the Islamic State.
  5. Evidence that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement was never going to end Iran’s ability to have nuclear weapons in the future, despite the promises of former President Barack Obama.

I spent a good amount of time talking about today’s Iranian protestors and how we abandoned them in the Green Revolution in 2009. I explained why we need to be more supportive of their efforts for peaceful regime change. As a Kennedy School of Government researcher discovered, the most successful regime changes are non-violent and only 3.5% of the population needs to be actively involved in order to reach critical mass and effect change.

I also asked the students to put aside preconceived notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when I discussed a non-politicized analysis of international law. I explained why the West Bank is more appropriately defined as the occupation of a disputed territory, whether or not one considers it unwise for Israel to hold on to it.

I presented graphic evidence of how the Palestinians preach hatred and incite their young people against Israel, and showed them that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas says point-blank that he cannot accept a Jewish state.

When I showed former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s map that offered the Palestinians 100% of the West Bank with land swaps and eastern Jerusalem as their capital—which Abbas rejected—as well as numerous P.A. maps that erased Israel completely, it seemed to make a strong impression. At Columbia, I also showed evidence that the BDS movement on their campuses is not about two states for two peoples but rather about destroying the Jewish state.

To help the students understand Iran’s grand scheme, I shared a map showing how the Islamic republic encircles Israel through proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. I explained that keeping control of the Jordan River valley is essential for Israel’s security if Jordan is the next domino to fall. I next showed photos of Hezbollah and Hamas military structures embedded in civilian areas, setting the scene for cries from the international community of alleged Israeli war crimes in the inevitable next war.

At both Yale and Columbia, students stayed well after the Q&A session, wanting to discuss the topics and share their viewpoints. Given what has recently happened to some non-woke speakers on campus, I was relieved that there were no disruptions and that only a few students left during my talk. I was also pleased to receive inquiries by email in the days that followed.

What I learned at Columbia and Yale was that as bad as cancel culture is on many campuses, there are still opportunities to present facts and analysis in context and to respectfully discuss complex issues with a receptive audience of very impressive young adults.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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