The New Middle East Battleground: College Campuses
The signs on campus read, "Zionism equals Nazism" and "Why do Israelis love to kill Palestinian children?" One simply showed an Israeli flag dripping blood.
When Sarah Tolkoff returned to UC Irvine from her Birthright Israel trip last year, she says, "I realized the anti-Israel rhetoric on campus had gotten out of control. Going to school every day, I felt like my identity was being stomped on." The founder of UCI’s Anteaters for Israel activist group says, "I wasn’t involved until I got angry."
This school year, plenty of Jews and Jewish organizations are angry enough to get involved on campus. Hasbara ("advocacy" in Hebrew) for Israel is planned for colleges nationwide, as Jewish organizations begin campaigns to reach students this school year.
On college campuses, as in the news, the Israeli-Palestinian situation dominates the political conversation. In the pitched emotional battle to shape the thinking of the nation’s future leaders, the pro-Palestinian position often wins.
Like the protest movement against the Vietnam War, the Free Speech Movement or multicultural education, support for the Palestinian cause gains legitimacy and massive press coverage when it wins the hearts and picket signs of U.S. college students. This month, as students arrive at or return to college, Jewish organizations large and small hope to change the situation by organizing educational campaigns to help pro-Israel students make their case to their peers.
"Jewish students feel outgunned. We need to work on our intellectual arsenal," says B. J. Elias of Southern California Students for Israel, a program of USC Hillel. Elias, a USC graduate student and former Israel advocacy leader at Emory University, estimates, "About 70 percent of Muslim students could give a coherent analysis of how Israel is at fault in the current situation. About 70 percent of Jewish students could not answer those charges."
Elias believes Jewish students have not felt much need for a connection to Israel until recently. "For people in their mid-20s and younger," he says, "the existence of Israel has been a given; it didn’t need defending."
That situation has changed, as demonstrated by the highly publicized rallies on the campuses of UC Berkeley in April and San Francisco State in May of this year. In Berkeley, as reported in the student newspaper, on Yom HaShoah a Jewish student stood before a chanting crowd and recited "Kaddish" in honor of Palestinians killed during the conflict.
Confronted on campus with highly organized and often emotionally appealing pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rhetoric, many students lack the factual and rhetorical preparation to support Israel among their peers. Even before Bay Area rallies in May, national Jewish organizations were coordinating efforts and preparing Israel advocacy initiatives for college campuses across the country. Even Hollywood is getting into the pro-Israel act, with a number of key people participating.
Though a recent American Jewish Committee-funded poll of college students found that more support Israel than the Palestinian cause in the current conflict (see p. 15), recent events show that most are still unable to articulate that support in a convincing way, while Palestinian supporters argue their case more effectively. It is this rhetorical disadvantage that Jewish organizations are now beginning to address.
At the forefront of the effort is Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. With funding and support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Hillel has created the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a network of 20 national Jewish organizations working to improve Israel’s image on college campuses.
"One of our biggest challenges is the majority of Jewish students who are not well informed," says Rhoda Weisman, chief creative officer for Hillel and director of its Center for Jewish Engagement. "We want to make sure, for those who are not well-connected with Israel, that we are giving them multiple points of entry."
ICC will coordinate pro-Israel events, information, marketing campaigns, speakers’ tours and programming, serving as a hasbara clearinghouse. Newly appointed ICC Director Wayne Firestone, formerly the Israel director for the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement, "I believe I can help students penetrate beyond the headlines to better understand Israel’s position as the only democracy in the Middle East, as well as its centrality to the Jewish people."
"We are almost a year behind," says Lynn Schusterman, president of the Schusterman Family Foundation, "I heard students in April of ’01 saying they needed help at an AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] policy conference student breakfast. They were not prepared factually to debate pro-Palestinian students. It took us until this May to get all of the organizations together."
More than 440 college activists from around the world convened this week at Hillel’s Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly for a six-day conference to learn leadership skills and pro-Israel advocacy.
Lisa Eisen, program director for the Schusterman Foundation and the ICC steering committee chair, says, "We saw diffuse efforts on campus, but given the worsening situation, we thought the problem was bigger than any one organization."
The problem is even bigger than one metaorganization, and many other groups have formed or refocused their efforts to support college students in their need for good arguments for Israel. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jews in Crisis campaign has set a goal of $48,500 for the College Campus Initiative (CCI), a partnership of The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The money will go toward a variety of projects on eight campuses in the greater Los Angeles area, according to Federation spokesperson Tzivia Schwartz Getzug.
CCI plans include a weekend-long conference called Action Israel, to train students and campus professionals in pro-Israel activism. The initiative also plans a weekly e-mail newsletter by and for Los Angeles-area students, and regular meetings of an Activist Student Leadership Network to develop leadership, organizing, and public relations tools.
Money will also be set aside to bring experts on Israel to speak on campuses, and to organize pro-Israel rallies. CCI plans to subsidize students who want to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., as well.
David Suissa, chairman of SuissaMiller Advertising, is a leader in the effort to formulate a pro-Israel message to which students will respond. Formal debate isn’t Suissa’s style. "The mood for us next year is to take the gloves off," he says.
The advertising guru applies his sloganeering and sound-bite expertise to Israel advocacy in the form of fliers, leaflets and pamphlets produced by organizations he supports, such as Olam4Israel.com and Betaroncampus.com. The two groups, which share office space, produce similar eye-catching and provocative literature designed to grab and hold the attention of students.
Suissa calls it "instant activism for people with short attention spans." The message should not require too much time or effort to understand, Suissa says, because "the students didn’t sign up to join a war."
Olam4Israel plans to print 1 million pamphlets for distribution on campuses nationwide this year. Titled, "This Leaflet Is Full of Lies," the literature points out false but widely believed arguments that, unanswered and undisputed, have left pro-Israel students feeling helpless. Sister organization Betaroncampus.com offers on its Web site downloadable provocative "Did You Know?" fliers, featuring information supporting Israel that students can print and post on campus.
If Israel’s problem is public opinion, then there’s no business like show business to look to for help. Project Communicate is a working group of entertainment industry professionals who support Israel and want the world to know why. Among the heavy-hitters going to bat for Israel are CAA agent Dan Adler; political consultant Donna Bojarsky; producers Sean Daniel and Zvi Howard Rosenman; attorney Lynne Wasserman; screenwriter Tom Teicholz; entertainment attorney Ken Hertz, and Art Levitt, CEO of movie ticket Web site Fandango.com.
When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Los Angeles in May as part of The Jewish Federation’s Jews in Crisis campaign, a group of 25 entertainment industry creative people and executives from across the political spectrum held a breakfast meeting with the former prime minister. Since that time, Project Communicate has identified college students as its first priority, commissioning prominent political consultant Frank Luntz to report on the issues, arguments and ideas that can effect pro-Israel attitudes on campus.
Whoever is making the case for Israel — organization or individual, student or teacher, Jew or non-Jew — convincing Americans of any position requires the right words, the right language and the right framing. At the behest of Project Communicate, the American Jewish Committee and other organizations, Luntz went beyond college students, examining a range of U.S. attitudes toward the situation and the language that works to persuade Americans.
"From history to culture to values, the closer you define the similarities between Israel and America, the more likely you are to win the support of those who are neutral," the Luntz report says. Other general advice in the report includes, "Promote Anwar Sadat and King Hussein before you delegitimize Arafat," and, "The nation that is perceived as being most for peace will win this debate."
College students, with fast, easy access to the Internet, can find a wealth of hasbara advice with the click of a mouse (see sidebar), for example, The World Union of Jewish Students Web site has a downloadable "Hasbara Handbook."
As a student and a student leader, USC’s Elias has learned an important lesson in the hasbara battle that he likes to share with fellow pro-Israel students: take the offensive. "We need to put our position out there first," he says, "Not attacking the other side, but make them respond to our message."
For more information on Israel advocacy and the way the media portrays Israel, visit any of the sites below.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee:
The Middle East Media Reseasch Institute:
Palestinian Media Watch:
Independant Media Review Analysis:
World Union of Jewish Students:
Betar on Campus:
Olam For Israel:
American Jewish Committee:
Jewish Internet Association: