Campus climate — and reality — checks

Campus climate — and reality — checks

The past few weeks have brought a number of dispatches from the “campus wars”:

• Speaking in Whippany, Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky claimed American campuses are “occupied territories” and said many young Jews tell him that “it is better to live in a world where Israel doesn’t exist.”

A national survey by the Forward found that, despite the widespread fear of a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel, no university in the United States or Canada has divested from any Israeli company or permanently ceased the sale of any product.

• The American Jewish Committee joined in complaints against new anti-discrimination guidelines for college campuses that they say can be used to censor criticism of Israel. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, and Kenneth Stern, anti-Semitism expert with the AJC, say that in an effort to “protect” Jewish students from anti-Israel invective, new interpretations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act conflate legitimate criticism about Israel’s policies with anti-Semitism.

Taken together, these news items suggest that the climate on campus is more complicated than is commonly portrayed. No doubt, Jewish students on some college campuses are dismayed by the loud and vocal opposition to Israel they encounter. A recent pro-Palestinian campaign at Rutgers University discomforted students and members of the larger Jewish community.

But there are also indications that, in the worthwhile effort to educate young people about Israel, some Jewish organizations and leaders are exaggerating the issue, or proposing draconian measures that could stifle debate and free speech on campus.

Some of these efforts seem to imply that Jewish students are in need of “protection,” when what they need are facts and support. The best programs, in fact, provide the latter, building the confidence of Jewish students and giving them the tools they need to defend Israel. Such programs include the Jewish Agency’s “Israel Fellows” programs at campus Hillels, and a recent “Stand Up for Israel” workshop in West Orange sponsored by an array of local Jewish institutions (see related article).

The incidents at Rutgers and other universities suggest that the best defense is a good offense — led by students with the knowledge and confidence they need to make the strongest case for Israel.

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