What's Wrong with Advice for Dealing with Zionophobia on Campus

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Observations from Columbia University Campus

This article was first published in parts (part1, part2, part3) in the Elder of Ziyon blog.

Thank you John Kovac and Naomi Cohn for many helpful edits.

What is the more likely reality on campus?

A toxic anti-Israel climate on college campuses is on the rise. This increase in Zionophobia is a source of anxiety to Jewish students and their parents. Students are wondering what awaits them on campus and how to best navigate the hostile environment of academia. Parents are wondering what can be done to protect their children and combat Jew hatred at their school. With the next school year approaching, there has been no dearth of advice from professional advice-givers of mainstream Jewish organizations and well-meaning intellectuals. But how effective has this avalanche of advice been?

Recently I read a blog in the Times of Israel entitled "Before you head to campus, read this." The author acknowledges that "many campuses have become ground-zero for anti-Israel activism" and advises pro-Israel students "to be knowledgeable enough, open to talking with others in your circle, willing to grapple with complexity, and confidently owning your identity." When it comes to Israel, the advice is to "discuss with nuance and sophistication, not bombast" and to "understand that there is more to every student than where they stand on this issue. Disagreements on Israel shouldn’t be the only thing keeping individuals or student groups from interacting."

In broad daylight on Broadway in front of the main entrance to Columbia University campus. This is the reality of Jewish experience on a toxic anti-Israel campus. As a Jewish student, are you prepared to see this at the main entrance to your campus?

It is solid advice that might work well on campuses where pro-Israel students are confronted by peers who, as the TOI piece states, "may have never met a Jew before and for whom Israel is simply a faraway country." If only such open-minded peers who are genuinely ignorant about Israel were the main problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality on many problematic campuses and this sensible advice has a fatal flaw as it presupposes that one's opponents are acting in good faith, i.e., that they are fair people, sincere in their beliefs, open to examining whether these beliefs are based on the truth, and are willing to change their minds if shown contrary facts. If only it were possible to prevail in arguments by "discuss[ing] [Israel] with nuance and sophistication" as the article recommends. If only it were possible to educate by a calm presentation of facts and reason. If only it were possible to win sympathy by explaining what Israel means to the Jewish people who were exiled by the Romans and persecuted in the Diaspora. If only it were possible to win admiration by extolling the miraculous success of the tiny nation of refugees who, surrounded by enemies, overcame tremendous odds and who, by sheer hard work and intellectual brilliance, created amazing technologies and medical breakthroughs benefiting the entire world. If only it were possible to win empathy by pointing out how Israel has been always the first nation to help in a disaster, even when the disaster strikes its enemies. If only it were possible to win hearts and minds by dispelling lies. If only...

The level of Zionophobia fueled by BDS-inspired Jew hatred is not the same on every campus. Anti-Israel activities are concentrated in a small number of prestigious campuses popular with Jewish students; the larger the Jewish student population the more pervasive is the anti-Israel hostility. The worst anti-Israel schools tend to be prominent, prestigious universities that wield enormous influence and generate the largest amount of publicity. Averaging anti-Israel sentiment of Columbia University which had 108 incidents recorded by AMCHA or New York University which had 75 incidents with Appalachian State University which had 4 incidents or Bradley University which had 1 incident distorts the reality. It tempers what it feels like to be an isolated pro-Israel student on a campus with an active pro-BDS movement fueled by aggressive chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow and J Street U, where professors are anti-Israel propagandists, where Hillel eschews involvement beyond anodyne statements and serving Shabbat dinners to avoid antagonizing their liberal donors, and where the administrators—the supposed "adults in the room"—are intimidated by, if not openly complicit with, the students and faculty claiming for themselves the exclusive right to be the arbiters of human rights and social justice.

Anti-Israelism on campus is pervasive.

As a Jew, how comfortable are you walking by the Apartheid Wall as this one at Columbia University?

To appreciate the intensity of what pro-Israel students face on an actively anti-Israel campus, watch this excerpt from an excellent documentary "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus" or consider an article from the New York Post entitled "Israeli student at Columbia says she’s being bullied by Palestinian group" that stated,

"Ofir, the 24-year-old daughter of Israel Consul General in New York Dani Dayan, said she is harassed and threatened over her background by the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and that the school is failing to protect her. 'SJP is violent,' she said. 'I’m worried about my personal safety.' The political science major had her initial run-in about a month into the fall 2017 semester, when she was in the lobby of Knox Hall — home to the Middle East Institute — having a phone conversation in Hebrew. 'A girl heard me and started screaming, "Stop killing Muslim ­babies! . . . You’re a murderer!" Ofir said. 'Then she screamed, "Zionist, get out!" A nearby public-safety ­administrator did nothing.'"

If you really want to know how it feels to be a pro-Israel student on a hostile anti-Israel campus imagine the opprobrium, scorn, animosity, ostracism, ridicule, harassment, and insults anyone openly advocating racist, misogynistic or homophobic views would face on a liberal campus. It is not an exaggeration. Israel is accused of every imaginable crime, such as apartheid, genocide, organ trafficking, testing weapons on children, testing drugs on Palestinian prisoners, stealing Palestinian water, poisoning Palestinian wells, raping Palestinian women and not raping Palestinian women (both accusations were made by the same academic!), police brutality against African Americans in the US—you name it—by the virulently anti-Israel academics and semi-professional student agitators, and not a word of criticism from the school's administration who routinely ignore or dismiss student complaints.

It is no surprise that in an environment like this students who express sympathy for Israel are treated as evil supporters of a bloodthirsty regime that has no right to exist and needs to be exterminated together with its supporters. Are these the people to whom the pro-Israel students are supposed to listen and with whom they are expected to engage in nuanced conversations?

It is common wisdom that approximately 10% of students on a typical campus are committed supporters of Israel and 20% of students are committed anti-Zionists whose minds cannot be changed by facts or arguments. Therefore, pro-Israel students have been advised to concentrate on winning over the remaining 70% of the undecided. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes that the "undecided" are unbiased and would be potentially interested in joining either side if it were not for their ignorance. However, there are other, more significant reasons why these students have not taken sides. Many are apathetic and not interested in Israeli-Palestinian issues; their minds cannot be changed by any tactic that requires an investment of effort to learn the truth. The rest feel that joining the pro-Israel side would be uncool and would damage their social standing. This is where the perverse notion of intersectionality—pervasive on campus but largely ignored by liberal professional advice-givers—plays a huge role. The threat of this pernicious ideology that aligns every group against Jews cannot be overstated. To be a part of social justice circles students must demonstrate that they are anti-Israel.

Intersectionality is a key reason why pro-Israel Jews have lost ground on campus and in society at large. By using intersectionality, Islamists have hijacked the good intentions of otherwise decent people and have made antisemitism palatable. By linking together unrelated—often contradictory—grievances, Islamists have weaponized intersectionality and have infiltrated every social justice movement, assigning every possible nasty quality to Israel supporters—and Jews in general—in order to exclude them from participation in social justice causes. By positioning anti-Zionism as a purely political issue Islamists inoculated themselves against legitimate charges of antisemitism or racism.

"Denying Jewish people the right for nationhood is straight racism, not anti-Semitism. Jews fight Zionophobia by labeling it anti-Semitism, which is a mistake. It is so easily deflected by saying ‘My best friends are Jewish’ or ‘I’ll go to prison to defend a Jew’s right to wear a yarmulke or eat kosher food’ but still want Israel to be abolished." Professor Judea Pearl

By combining intersectionality with what they falsely claim to be a "political disagreement", Islamists defanged traditional tactics that relied on shaming and social pressure. Together with the identitarian progressives, Islamists undermined and inverted Western social norms that open liberal societies traditionally used to restrain the virus of hate. Thus, once the scarlet letter had been blotted out, it became impossible to generate bad publicity to inflict reputational damage on universities promoting or tolerating Zionophobia. As long as the universities could plausibly claim to be on the forefront of other social justice causes—such as diversity and inclusion—and as long as their faculty and students were careful to lambast "Zionists" rather than "Jews," they were insulated from ignominy and were free to spread the new antisemitism. The antisemitic absolution has been purchased with intersectional indulgence that allowed to slander, demonize, delegitimize, and apply a double standard to the only Jewish state in the world and the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. The problem with academia goes deeper than Zionophobia, but antipathy to Jews and Israel—"the Jew among nations"—is usually the first manifestation.

Despite a mountain of advice, Zionophobia on campuses has been getting worse and more virulent. One would think that this calls for some introspection and that the professional advice-givers would step back and evaluate why the trend continues in the wrong direction. Perhaps, instead of the same old "more education", "more engagement", "more listening", "more nuance", "more positivity", "more Israel-is-cool" advice, it would pay to first determine why the advice given so far has not produced the expected results? Sadly, this is either not happening or, if it is, no new strategies based on data-driven assessments and results-oriented success metrics have been implemented.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." ― Winston Churchill

Bizarrely, some professional advice-givers disregard overwhelming evidence and believe that the situation on campus has actually improved. A year ago another member of Columbia University's chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) and I met with the National Campus Outreach Director of a major Jewish organization to discuss potential synergies. During the unproductive and frustrating conversation, we were repeatedly advised to let the "professionals" handle the situation on our campus because, having attended numerous conferences, they were better equipped for it. We were told that the role of alumni should be limited to supporting functions, specifically, to exhibiting their materials and promoting this particular organization on Columbia's prestigious campus. After an hour of getting nowhere, we asked in exasperation whether the National Campus Outreach Director thought that the situation on campus improved over the last one, three, or five years due to the strategies she was advocating. To our amazement the Director indeed believed that the situation on campus had improved because she and her colleagues had done an effective job. At this point we politely said "thank you" and walked out. This is what is called "drinking too much of one's own Kool-Aid."

Pro-Israel students are constantly bombarded by negative messages about Israel. Here are the posters from the Israeli Apartheid Week at Columbia University (for more information on these items click on each image or here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).

Besides a delusional lack of self-assessment, pro-Israel advocacy on campus suffers from stale, ineffective strategies and defensive, measured tactics that make the pro-Israel advocates—both students and adults—appear tentative. These approaches are no match for the brazen commitment of the obnoxious anti-Israel brigade.

So here is different advice.

Advice for Pro-Israel Students

  • If you cannot stand being unpopular or if your priority is to participate in social justice causes with groups hostile to Israel, then hide your pro-Israel sympathies and avoid pro-Israel advocacy. This may seem like a contrarian advice, but not every student wishes to be hassled or has the guts to confront haters. Many Jewish students are in college to learn and to get a degree. Nothing is wrong with that. On most campuses, Jewish students who do not express pro-Israel sentiments publicly will not be harassed. Not yet, anyway. If this applies to you, sorry for having wasted your time, please skip the rest. Otherwise, read on...

On a hostile anti-Israel campus images of "Israeli brutality" and calls for sanctions are pervasive. They are inescapable in study halls, libraries, lectures, guest seminars, and even on lampposts surrounding the campus (for more information on these items click each image or here: 1, 2, 3)

  • Find a support system on campus. Forget Hillel, which often is, at best, wishy washy, catering to everyone, including J Street U, and is, at worst, an "Open" Hillel that actively opposes Israel. Instead, seek out Chabad or a pro-Israel student organization like Students Supporting Israel (SSI). Don't try to confront bigots alone.

  • When confronted by anti-Israel students, ascertain whether they are good faith interlocutors or close-minded propagandists before engaging in a discussion. Ask why they believe in what they believe. Ask where they learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ask if they would consider contrary fact-based arguments. Ask what information, if any, would change their minds. Challenge the sources of their beliefs if acquired from biased media, Arab propaganda speakers, websites like Al Jazeera and Electronic Intifada, or anti-Israel organizations, including Jewish ones. It is possible that fair-minded students have been misinformed. However, if the anti-Israel students are closed-minded, if they cannot articulate what would change their opinion, then no productive conversation is possible. Label them Jew haters either publicly or in your mind and don't waste time engaging them.

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." — Elie Wiesel
  • Win hearts and minds by appealing to emotions first. Traditional advice to rely on knowledge and reason is ineffective. Until hearts are won the minds are closed and unprepared for the required intellectual heavy lifting. The anti-Israel brigade has long understood that appealing to the indecisive is psychological warfare rather than dry academic debate. Try either to earn sympathy or to undermine the sympathy for the other side before marshaling facts and logical arguments. Don't be afraid to offend. Unless you engage on an emotional level you will not earn respect and love. As Elie Wiesel said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." The only way to influence "followers" is to make following the other side appear unacceptable, or at least uncool.

  • If you are ready to fight, fight fire with fire. You cannot win with only defensive tactics or with positivebut tone deaf messages when the other side is endlessly hurling fake accusations. During the annual antisemitic hate fest at Columbia known as Israeli Apartheid Week, I saw pro-Israel students extolling Israel's technological advances while the other side hysterically yelled false accusations that the Israeli Army kills babies with sophisticated missiles and indiscriminately burns civilians alive with incendiary bombs. It is hard to imagine a more tone deaf pro-Israel advocacy! Do you think that this example is atypical, extreme or absurd? Consider the recent article "Letter to Rashida Tlaib: Join Us for a Day in Israel" where "the author, an entrepreneur from California and a Zionist activist" invited[1] antisemitic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to "visit the future site of a world-class Culinary Institute in the north of Israel that will be the finest in the Middle East. It will bring people of all walks of life and religions together through a love for food." How does an invitation to a hoity-toity culinary school sound juxtaposed with fake claims that Palestinians are systemically starved to death in their "open air prison" while Israel steals their water? These creates awful, tone-deaf optics. We are conditioned to believe that we must be mature , moderate, and the reasonable. Such approach may work in a controlled debate setting with fair and open minded opponents of good intentions. But it backfires in a street fight, which is what Israel advocacy has unfortunately become on campus. Do not be afraid to call out BDS supporters as genocidal terrorists, for they are not afraid of calling you "Nazis", "colonizers", "baby killers" and worse. And if you think that this is poor advice, ask yourself why, if the anti-Israel brigade is using all the wrong tactics, the anti-Israel climate on campus is getting worse and the anti-Israel sentiment gaining influence and popularity? Ask yourself, do you prefer to win or to be a gracious loser?

  • Relentlessly expose and ridicule propaganda lies. Don't shy away from portraying the other side as bigots and haters who lie about their goals and methods. They claim to stand for human rights but want the destruction of Israel and the death of Jews. They claim that they want a dialogue but when approached refuse to engage citing BDS "non-normalization" policy.

  • Tirelessly call out inherent contradictions of intersectionality, specifically the cynicism and illogic of the unholy alliance between Islamists and progressives. Don't shy away from pointing out that unlike Israel, most Arab and Muslim states are dictatorships headed by kleptocratic, despotic tyrants. The Syrian dictator massacres his own people. In these countries human rights are routinely denied. Gays are persecuted by Palestinian Authority and hung from cranes in Iran. Black slavery exists to this day in Lybia. Women are denied basic rights and are forced to wear hijabs, burkas throughout the Muslim world. Barbaric female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in many Muslim countries throughout Middle East and Africa. In many Arab countries freedom of expression is forbidden and dissenters are hurled from rooftops, freedom of religion is non-existent and medieval blasphemy laws still apply, Christians, Yazidis, Jews, Kurds, Assyrians and other ethnic and religious minorities are slaughtered by genocidal Islamist maniacs, cradle-to-grave indoctrination starts in kindergartens and antisemitic sentiments are expressed by over 90% of the population, etc. Demand to know how any liberal person can support this? Attack, attack, and attack these intellectually indefensible positions.

An excerpt (at time mark 42:17) of Amanda Berman formerly of The Lawfare Project explaining the importance of filing Title VI complaints during WZO-AZM Law and Policy Symposium: Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism Challenges on the American Campus Today. (The symposium is well worth watching in its entirety; the link to watch from the beginning is here).

  • Another and even more powerful option is to file a complaint against the school with the Office of Civil Rights. This is the ultimate weapon! The Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos recently participated in the Justice Department's "Summit on Combatting Anti-Semitism" (well worth watching: part1, part2, part3). The Office of Civil Rights under the leadership of Kenneth Marcus have been actively investigating schools for Title VI violations. In a recent interview, "At US Department of Education, Kenneth Marcus tackles anti-Semitism in all its varied forms" Marcus stated, "So I would say that the No. 1 issue is the cases we don’t get. The fact that we are aware anecdotally and through survey data that there are many Jewish students [who] feel they are experiencing anti-Semitism, and yet very few of them are submitting complaints to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). One of the issues for us is awareness..." If you really want to bring change to your school and move the needle, this is the single most effective thing you can do to fight antisemitism on campus. A number of organizations such as The Lawfare Project and Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law are there to help.

Advice for the Parents of Pro-Israel Students

First, realize that academia has been poisoned against Israel and that Jews are treated differently from every other marginalized group on campus. Not only are anti-Israel views promulgated by the very professors that you hope will educate your children, but such professors may damage your child's prospects. The student body is hostile to Israel and is infiltrated by professional anti-Israel agitators (can anyone believe that this slick 66-page BDS presentation was actually developed by students?) who are sponsored by deep-pocketed anti-Israel organizations. And the administration that is supposed to ensure fairness and compliance with Title VI is, at best, ineffective. It hides behind the excuses of "academic freedom" and "free speech." Yet we all know that similarly bigoted vitriol directed towards any other marginalized group on campus would end the career of anyone who says or does a fraction of what is directed against Israel and Jews. At worst, administrations actively encourage and participate in such anti-Israel behavior.

The uncomfortable truth is that the pro-Israel students are too few and lack the power to change the climate on campus. Pro-Israel faculty is outnumbered and powerless despite valiant efforts. Hillel and most other Jewish organizations on campus are afraid to antagonize administrations and the donors on whom they depend. These groups have too much to lose. Alumni have no agency on campus and, therefore, no influence, except those who donate millions, but these wealthy donors are only interested in having buildings named for themselves. Moreover, students and academics often work separately; their aversion to combine efforts renders them less effective. For instance, even as a leader of Columbia's chapter of ACF my request to attend a conference of an academic pro-Israel advocacy organization was declined because I am not an academic. Hoping for the administration to step in is like hoping that inmates can run an asylum; every prior attempt at self-policing failed. Mainstream Jewish organizations are too busy with infighting, competing for funding and worrying about their organization's brand. When they do get involved, with few exceptions, they timidly insist on fighting with white gloves on.

Furthermore, trying to cover every school in a reactive whack-a-mole mode is a losing strategy that spreads resources too thinly and fails to apply sufficient pressure. Instead, pro-Israel organizations should focus their combined resources on a few influential schools with well-known histories of antisemitism. Better to achieve a few successes than to suffer multiple failures. Make examples of a few schools through application of maximum unrelenting pressure. This will serve as a more effective deterrent. It is a proven strategy under resource constraints that has been successfully used by the IRS to prevent tax evasion and by the SEC to curb insider trading.

So what are parents or alumni to do? Based on my experience these are the only effective options:

  • Create legal pressure on the schools and demand government scrutiny. Work with students, other alumni and the pro-Israel community to bring lawsuits or to attract government scrutiny to the most Zionophobic schools.

  • Stop donations and do so with maximum publicly! But be aware that for a large and well-endowed school like the ones in the Ivy League, this will work only if you are a huge donor or if you can influence huge donors.

This may sound grim but it is an honest assessment. And we cannot hope to win if we continue deluding ourselves by thinking that the same old failed techniques will suddenly work.


[1] The blog was written before Congresswoman Tlaib was denied entry to Israel.

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