Next week, Israel-haters will once again launch the misinformed and misinforming movement known as “Israel Apartheid Week” (IAW) in universities and communities across the world. The good news is that while IAW claims to be growing, its execution on North American campuses is limited to a handful, and even in these places, the organizers do not reach very many undecided students.
However, another student-led movement about Israel will include participants on 75 campuses across North America, and is poised to impact a far larger and more diverse audience. That movement is “Israel Peace Week,” (IPW) a student-conceived grassroots educational campaign now in its third year. Originally created as a preemptive response to IAW, IPW has developed into a proactive and engaging campaign that is effective regardless of whether there is anti-Israel activity on a specific campus.
IPW revolves around a simple, yet often understated message: Israel wants peace and has demonstrated its willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace. The campaign also outlines options for peace, existential threats to the Jewish state, and the values and accomplishments of a thriving Israeli democracy in an otherwise despotic region. IPW organizers employ methods such as interactive displays in the center of campus, cultivating relationships with non-Jewish groups on campus, writing in the campus newspaper, and innovative social media campaigns in order to educate as many of their peers as possible.
In stark contrast, the main thrust of this year’s IAW is to generate support for the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, a campaign that calls on universities and individuals to divest from companies that do business in Israel, boycott the sale of goods produced in West Bank settlements, and boycott Israeli universities and professors.
By singling Israel out for censure and advocating for a one-state solution, BDS is not a simply a movement to criticize Israeli policy, but an effort to delegitimize the state itself.
A recent study conducted by The Israel Project and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise indicates that most university students, while knowing little about the issues, are not sympathetic to the idea of boycotting Israel. Furthermore, when the goals of the BDS movement are explained, opposition to the idea increases significantly.
The arguments that both sides must accept responsibility for creating peace, and that there are more constructive ways to express concern about a government’s policies – say dialog, for instance – than boycotting, resonate strongly with students.
Even before this study, the students who created IPW two years ago intuited that their peers could be engaged with messages about peace and how to achieve it. By propagating a solution-oriented message, IPW lends wider understanding to the efforts Israel has made for peace, and the reality that terror and incitement must be eradicated to bring about a true solution. It is an opportunity for pro-Israel students to discuss difficult topics in a resonant manner.
The contrast between solution-seeking and boycott is sadly mirrored in the Middle East today, of course. While Israel maintains a willingness to dialog with the Palestinian Authority without preconditions, last September the PA sought to circumvent a negotiated settlement through its unilateral statehood bid (UDI). Support for UDI also did not gain traction on campus, while campaigns about Israel’s efforts for a negotiated peace were better received.
As the PA enters a unity government with Hamas, which openly calls for Israel’s destruction, IPW organizers must communicate that this is yet another obstacle to peace.
As an aside, while the BDS movement may not currently have wide-stream appeal on campus, it is gaining academic legitimacy, most alarmingly at Ivy League institutions like Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, both hosting high-level anti- Israel conferences this spring. While in no way endorsed by the universities themselves, these conferences are championed by prominent academics on each campus. At Pennsylvania political science chair Ian Lustick, a well-known critic of Israel, expressed support for the conference while stopping just shy of directly endorsing BDS. At Harvard, conference organizers are planning appearances by law professor Duncan Kennedy and Kennedy School of Government professor Stephen Walt.
Cloaked as explorations for “alternative peaceful solutions,” these conferences are championed by prominent academics on each campus. The TIP/AICE data also happen to indicate that a whopping 83 percent of students who have taken a Middle Eastern studies course believed their professors to be “unbiased.”
This perception, when considered in light of growing academic delegitimization of Israel, has serious long-term implications.
Taking both the success of IPW and the widening legitimacy of BDS into account, the pro-Israel community must think critically about how to maintain support for Israel among tomorrow’s leaders. It certainly seems that the messages of peace and equality are more persuasive than boycotts and sanctions. But how do we ensure that Israel’s supporters are more influential that its detractors? This is a question that must be considered as new battlegrounds arise.
In the mean time, let’s commend the courageous and innovative young adults making the case for Israel on the front lines.
Natalie Menaged is the director of education of the Hasbara Fellowships, a project of Aish International which educates, trains and inspires students to stand up for Israel on campus.