Time to get real on campus
What a new school year this is turning out to be.
Milan Chatterjee, the former Graduate Student Association president at UCLA, will be finishing his last year of law school at New York University, driven from his West Coast campus by what he calls a “hostile and unsafe campus environment.” In a letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, Chatterjee, a Hindu Indian-American, wrote, “Since November 2015 I have been relentlessly attacked, bullied and harassed by [anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions]-affiliated organizations and students.”
A Jewish student activist at Brown University, Benjamin Gladstone, complains that on his campus Jewish students and their organizations have been prevented from working in coalitions because of their association with Israel – real or imagined. In one notorious case last year, LGBTQ activist Janet Mock canceled her appearance at Brown after an online petition opposed the lecture because it was sponsored, in part, by Hillel, the Jewish campus group – even though the event had nothing to do with Israel.
And north of the border, Molly Harris, a rising junior at McGill University, reports that “many of my liberal peers, with whom I share so much common ground, have actively excluded Jewish students from their social-justice organizations” because of their association with Israel. She complains about frequent harassment of Jewish students and offers this chilling warning to incoming freshmen everywhere: “If you’re Jewish, you should probably also prepare yourself for the various forms of anti-Israel sentiment, and maybe even anti-Semitism.”
Never mind the debate about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” – on many campuses one’s position on Israel has become a litmus test for acceptability. If you are on the wrong side of the issue – or thought to be — the campus can be a hostile place.
The Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) reports that in 2015-2016, 185 campuses experienced 1,437 anti-Israel events, a 12-percent drop from the previous year. While Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns declined by 25 percent, from 44 to 33, there was an increase in “other forms of activism, such as attention-getting, visceral displays of anti-Israel sentiment. Campuses also saw a surge in disruptions of Israel-related events, during which anti-Israel activists attempted to silence lecturers and guest speakers.”
These tactics undermine the civility that is essential to the free exchange of ideas. In the service of creating a better, more peaceful world — starting with Israelis and Palestinians — anti-Israel groups are fostering campuses that alienate rather than unite. And, ironically, it is out of step with the Middle East today.
Israel is increasingly accepted across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco. Arab contacts with Israel, far from being a recent development, actually have a very long if bumpy history. Today, economic ties are growing while security and intelligence cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, and other Arab officials has become almost routine. In the face of nihilism and radical Islamism, Arab leaders are making common cause with Israel. Rather than seeking messianic prescriptions for peace, these Middle East realists are finding ways to cooperate to provide their people with stability and security in a region where misery, chaos, and brutality are commonplace.
Anti-Israel advocates on campus are taking a different approach. Rather than finding ways to work with pro-Israel students to improve the region — from the humanitarian disaster of Syria to the ravages of ISIS to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – their tactics are alienating one important partner that cares deeply about the Middle East while turning off the majority of students who are indifferent to the plight of the region. At a time when American leadership is critically needed, a united student voice could send a powerful message to Washington, especially during a presidential transition year. Alas.
Instead, the generation now in college is witness to a microcosm of Middle East dysfunction in their own quads. These young Americans will only become more disenchanted by the Middle East. America will grow more distant from the region. No Middle Easterner will sleep better at night.
Students who truly want to help the Middle East should embrace the approach of a growing number of Arab and Israeli leaders: Muster the courage to overcome ideological divides and find practical, realistic avenues of cooperation. If they can’t make peace on campus, they won’t succeed in the Middle East.
David Pollock is the Kaufman Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Policy and the editor of its Fikra Forum blog. Jeff Rubin is the Institute’s director of communications.