Jewish students face a daunting challenge on campus defending Israel’s right to exist as a democratic and Jewish country. Some examples:
*David HaLevi, a graduate of the University of Chicago, says “If one took a stance as a Zionist, or even as a member of Israeli (Jewish) society, on campus you removed yourself from academic discourse... You were considered outside any rational framework and made to feel shame and guilt for siding with ‘the Jews.’”
*One student gives the following insight into a class taught by Columbia University's Joseph Massad. “Mr. Massad explicitly tells students at the beginning of the course that he is presenting one side of the Arab-Israeli conflict... A perfect example of brainwashing,” the student wrote. "Mr. Massad in his writings has said Israel is illegitimate as a Jewish state.”
*Graduate of UC Berkeley Daniel Frankenstein remembers being heckled and called a “conservative Zionist bastard” when he ran for student-body president.
These are only a few telling examples. Generally, Jews on the left and on the right see the importance of Israel, as even the far left publication Tikkun indicates in its proclamation, “we call upon the Palestinian people to acknowledge the right of Jews to maintain their own homeland.” However, when one enters the halls of academia the so-called consensus on Israel’s existence is nowhere to be found.
College campuses have become podiums for those who disparage Israel, as seen in the different human rights, anti-globalization and anti-imperialism groups that have adopted the Palestinian cause. In academic circles, individual scholars’ views are often turned into a political litmus test. For example, Fouad Ajami, the articulate interpreter of Arab culture and politics who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, has been subject to scathing attacks from Arab critics such as Asad Abu Khalil in a review of Ajami’s book The Vanished Imam. In addition, Daniel Pipes noted how the Nation asked the leftist Jew Andrew N. Rubin to critique Ajami’s book for being too supportive of Israel.
Journalist Jay Nordlinger writes, “Jewish students and faculty feel that they are under siege, forced to explain or defend ‘their’ state, or even their status as Jews...”
The anti-Israel activism on college campuses underscores the need to provide our students with a broad understanding of Israel before they leave our schools for the college campus. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not black and white -- it is very asymmetrical. Yet the Palestinian cause has become the flagship of many Middle East departments across North America, primarily because of the late Palestinian apologist Edward Said. Said’s Orientalism positioned the Palestinians as the symbol of the latest Western prejudice against the Arab world and Islam in general. Thus, in the post-1967 era the Arab-Israeli conflict was portrayed in this light, with Israel the latest wing of the West oppressing non-Europeans.
Said’s thesis adds another element to the political correctness that already dominates American society and it should not be allowed to cloud the issues at hand. Our students must recognize that there is no acceptable use of terrorism. There is also no acceptable notion of eliminating a living and breathing state like Israel. Those who advocate such are the ones who should be on the defensive. An open climate for discussions about Israeli society and Israel’s quest for peace will provide our students a safe place in which to reflect on what Israel means to them as American Jews.
The similarities between America’s new reality and Israel’s on-going one, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, became apparent post-9/11. As Ilan Berman states, “Israel’s stable, pro-Western and democratic character, its robust defense infrastructure and modern military, and its strategic location in the volatile Middle East have only grown in importance to the United States since September 11.” Both nations are engaged in a war against terrorism. However, the character of the Jewish State is still questioned on a daily basis.
Teaching Israel and Zionism in the academy raises tensions within the politically diverse American Jewish community. Historically, American Jews aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, which was once associated with a liberal position on social issues and strong support for Israel. However, in the post-Vietnam war era, as world events dictated changes in American foreign policy, American Jews appeared increasingly comfortable on the political right. As the Washington Post writes, “almost half the Jews who chose Gore over Bush are uncertain they would vote the same way today. Perhaps even more crucial, prominent Democratic donors have crossed party lines. Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress and a supporter of Democrats, wrote a $100,000 check last year to the Republican National Committee. ‘It would be a mistake for the Jewish community not to show our appreciation to the president,’ Rosen said.”
The neo-conservative movement focused on, among other things, the importance of a democratic Israel to the United States. After Israel’s 1967 victory and the annexation of the territories, the radical left began to view the Jewish state as a hegemonic, oppressive power. Thus, the tension between historical general Jewish political sensibilities and its support for Israel.
Like Israelis, American Jews have varied political preferences. While they may not all unconditionally support everything Israel does, the land of Israel is the Jewish state and has the right to exist in security. We must help our students expand their knowledge about Israel and give them the tools to help Israel in her daily struggle to exist in peace.
Asaf Romirowsky is a research fellow for the Middle East Forum