Reality For Campus Ills

During the past year, if you were to mention the campus to anyone involved in Jewish life, you would surely elicit a response that was a mixture of anxiety, contempt and anger.

Headlines screamed with assertions that our universities were hotbeds of anti-Semitism and that Jewish students were front-line troops in a war to defend Israel. San Francisco State, Berkeley and Concordia — all of them scenes of belligerence, hateful expression and anti-Jewish violence — became code words denoting the rise of a vicious strain of worldwide anti-Semitic bigotry.

In fact, the events at these institutions appear to have revived the dormant anti-anti-Semitism industry and infused Jewish survivalists with new vitality and with a dose of ethnic pride. The message that these survivalists are disseminating is that we are a community in peril, that the college campus is an intimidating environment for young Jews and that the very survival of Israel is at stake.

But most campus professionals, who are certainly disturbed by the well-publicized anti-Jewish confrontations at a handful of particularly volatile universities, see little evidence of a widespread increase in anti-Semitism at their institutions. In fact, the most recent Anti-Defamation League survey (June 2002) supports this perception statistically with its finding that "anti-Semitism on college campuses is virtually non-existent" (3 percent of college undergraduates are in the most anti-Semitic category, as compared to 17 percent of the national population).

It turns out that contrary to the dominant dogma, "tolerance is more prevalent on college campuses than elsewhere in America."

However, the perception of Jewish students is that they are being victimized, and, notwithstanding the above analysis, their sense of siege requires strategic responses. So, what can be done to improve the atmosphere and buttress the position of Israel supporters on campus?

1. Sponsor speakers who offer healing messages of hope and coexistence, rather than contentious polemicists who project a future of hopelessness and endless confrontation. It is especially important that we maintain our focus on the ultimate goal — peace — and that we consistently affirm that the citizens of Israel are willing to accept a two-state compromise, but that there is no partner in our quest.

Furthermore, it is vital to admit our mistakes and engage in genuine self-criticism. Remember, it is our capacity to recognize our flaws that is one of the keys to our creative survival as a people. What’s more, if you are always right, you lose.

2. Build coalitions with moderate Arabs and Muslims. What is entirely missing from the agenda of the advocacy experts, who represent various communal agencies, is a program for nurturing campus coexistence. This is absolutely vital for the well-being of Jews, Arabs and Muslims, the entire campus community and for the social and political future of America.

My experience has taught me that the vast majority of Arab and Muslim students do not wish to pursue a path of discord and conflict and if approached in a sensitive manner, will agree to enter a dialogue. We simply have to learn how to break through the artificial wall of separation that prevails.

As a result of our efforts at UCLA, we successfully organized a course that was co-taught by myself and a Palestinian graduate student titled, "Voices of Peace: Perspectives on Confrontation and Reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict."

Just recently, we held the second annual Ramadan break-the-fast, co-sponsored by Hillel, the Progressive Jewish Student Alliance and the Muslim Student Association. One could argue that these activities have contributed to the relative calm at UCLA.

3. Raise funds to endow academic chairs, programs and graduate fellowships in Israel studies. By far, the most important long-term proposal that I can suggest is creating professorships in the field of Israel studies. This addresses an essential educational lacuna, or gap, at our universities that has been generated, to a large extent, by the chilling impact of Edward Said’s polemics on Middle East Studies programs.

There are few institutions that can boast of a Middle East scholar whose sympathies lie with Israel. Such scholarly appointments will not only engender academic balance, but will provide a permanent presence on campus of an instructor who will contribute to the public discourse regarding the conflict, who will function as a resource to colleagues and to students and who, as a regular member of the faculty, will touch the lives and influence the minds of countless number of students by introducing a positive educational approach to the subject.

This is a far more effective utilization of our scarce funds than the current rush by the survivalists to produce propaganda brochures of questionable utility. This is the priority.

Returning to the Ramadan program, what was most moving was that a Jewish participant stood before the crowd of 100 Muslim and Jewish students and faculty and read a poem advocating peace in Arabic, while a Muslim student read a prayer for peace in Hebrew.

When I told the Muslim representative that the prayer had been adapted by Abraham Joshua Heschel, he said, "That’s amazing! I read everything written by Heschel that I can find."

And I thought to myself: "Only on campus."

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA and an instructor in sociology and Jewish studies at UCLA.