Israel on Campus: Getting it Right

On college campuses, where cherished beliefs and assumptions are routinely challenged, tensions and conflicts are inevitable. When things go right, tensions turn into compassion and conflicts are transformed into community. But things do not always go right.

A student at a well-respected college reported to me that a professor had made a very strange claim in class; a claim that I knew to be far from historical truth and that painted Israel in an exceedingly negative light. I do not assume that all the reports I hear from one party to a conversation are accurate and so I made an appointment to speak with the professor.

The professor easily explained the incident. The student had mis-heard and then misinterpreted the professor's statement. The professor told me he had spoken to the student about the incident and believed they had clarified the misunderstanding. I appreciated the professor's care and concern for the student. Despite the fact that the professor and I have very different views and experiences regarding Israel, we went on to have an interesting conversation about the difficulties of peacemaking when there is an imbalance of power.

And then unexpectedly the professor resorted to a common campus meme and accused me of using my position of power, a position he believed was granted by my status in the Jewish community, in order to control and influence the content of his classroom, an infringement of academic freedom. I responded by saying that I perceived I had absolutely no power over what a tenured professor chose to do in his classroom. Rather, I had come to speak with him on behalf of a student who had an odd experience in his class. "No one else has come to me to speak about the content of my teaching, only you" said the professor. "And if others heard that a student had a problematic experience in your classroom," I replied, "wouldn't you want them to come and speak with you?"

A conversation that I had thought was about our mutual interest in serving students had turned into a discussion about who had more power, a respected member of the Jewish community or a college professor, and whether I was using my power to attempt to take power away from the professor.

Serving students, my original motivation for the conversation, had receded into the background.

On campuses today, disagreements are often argued on the grounds of the privileges and oppressions experienced by those making the arguments rather than on the merits of the arguments themselves. "Why do you construct reality the way you do?" too often becomes the governing question rather than "what happened and what can we learn from it?"

This is the backdrop for the contentiousness surrounding Israel on campus. Students who view Israel only as an oppressor and students who relate to Israel as a cherished homeland providing a safe haven from centuries of oppression meet one another on campus. It should come as no surprise that this meeting often does not go well. Very few professors have the combination of knowledge and social skills required to lead students productively through this potentially explosive encounter.

The values of free speech and academic freedom ensure that no one will be silenced. Indeed, what is the meaning of these values if they only protect the speech and opinions with which we are comfortable? Yet colleges and universities also cherish an environment that is free of bigotry. In a study published in July of this year, 32% of Jewish undergraduate students reported they had been verbally harassed in the past year because they were Jewish. Most critiques of Israel do not stem from anti-Semitism, but anti-Semites make liberal use of the cloak of anti-Israelism to advance their agenda.

Institutions of higher education can and should take action. Campus leaders need to be vocal and specific about the type of environment they seek to create; speech or actions that are contrary to this environment should be identified and criticized; there should be policies that define anti-Semitism; and preventing invited speakers from delivering their talks should not be tolerated. These and other policies, practices and communication strategies are conducive to creating a campus environment that zealously protects free speech and academic freedom while simultaneously condemning and rooting out bigotry. Punitive action against students or professors should be reserved for egregious offenses, but it is never appropriate for campus leaders to do nothing in the face of hatred or bias.

Even in the best of circumstances, the actions of campus leaders can only take us so far. An appropriate atmosphere cannot be legislated into existence. Students on American campuses who yell at their peers for perpetuating an unacceptable status quo situated over 6,000 miles away should consider whether they are doing more harm than good.

Reflecting on leaving the prison that had kept him captive for over 25 years, Nelson Mandela said: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." It is unfortunate and ironic that some students experiencing the freedom of their college years seem intent upon creating a self-imposed prison of bitterness and hatred.

Instead of importing conflict, students should use the privilege of their college years to focus on exporting peace. Faculty members and college administrators should guide students towards this end. This is how oppression will be conquered rather than perpetuated. And this is how today's students will become tomorrow's peacemakers.