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What to Make of Universities' 'Apartheid Week'

March 11, 2010 By:
Mitchell Bard
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Mitchell Bard

The shouting down of Israel's ambassador at the University of California, Irvine, and the arrival of "Israel Apartheid Week" have yet again drawn attention to the situation on American college campuses. They have provoked the usual anxiety about anti-Semitism, the treatment of Israel and the attitudes of students. Typically, the reactions have been overheated and largely mistaken.

Irvine was an ugly situation that was made possible by a school administration's permissive attitude toward hate speech. But it was just one case. While the video of that event spread virally, few people know that the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, spoke the very next night at U.C. San Diego without interruption.

Still, Yoram Dori, an adviser to Israeli President Shimon Peres, was horrified by the failure of students to fight back at Irvine. He talked about the old days, when Jewish students answered every demonstration with a counterdemonstration.

In those days, we faced similar problems. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the pro-Israel U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was kept from speaking when I was at U.C., Berkeley. But students then were more poorly equipped to respond than they are today. Students these days are reluctant to "take off the gloves," but we also teach them not to respond to everything the detractors do because it is sometimes counterproductive. In that sense, today's students are more sophisticated. At Irvine, the protesters accomplished nothing but getting themselves arrested and embarrassing their university.

Apartheid weeks in early March -- when pro-Palestinians seek to equate Israel's policies with the old South African practice of racial separation -- provide another case study in determining whether countering or ignoring is the best policy. The answer: It depends on the campus and the anticipated impact of the events. Globally, these events are part of a serious delegitimization campaign that needs to be addressed. But on U.S. campuses this year, the efforts were inconsequential.

Only about a dozen schools held events, and they were overwhelmed by the more than 20 "Israel Peace Weeks," where pro-Jewish state students sponsored events on campuses across the country. These activities were in addition to upcoming programs celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.

All told, the Israel on Campus Coalition -- a consortium of organizations -- recorded roughly 150 incidents on 100 campuses in the fall. On the face of it, that sounds serious. But that means that more than 95 percent of America's 3,000 colleges had nothing to report. In addition, most of the incidents were nothing more than a lecture or a protest, or some other event that was unlikely to make any lasting impact.

Only a handful of campuses had more than one incident. The one with the most -- New York University -- could hardly be called a trouble spot for Israel supporters.

In fact, more than 40 percent of the incidents were speeches by one of seven individuals/groups, so it is mostly the same suspects touring the country preaching to the converted. And the report did not list the corresponding pro- Israel programs held nationwide, which I would argue had at least as much impact -- if not more.

Perhaps the best indication of the state of U.S.-Israel relations was the latest Gallup poll, showing support for Israel at 63 percent, just below the all-time high of 64 percent, in contrast to 15 percent who favor Palestinians over Israel. Americans age 18-29 registered the lowest level of support for Israel and the highest for the Palestinians, but that margin was still 57 percent to 21 percent.

Despite the recent Goldstone report on Israel's war in Gaza and other negative attacks in the last year, Israel's popularity has increased, while the Palestinian Authority remains only slightly more popular than North Korea and Iran.

Still, the situation doesn't justify complacency. On the contrary, it has been achieved because of the time, energy and resources poured into campuses in the last decade to support Israel studies, trips and advocacy. Now is the time to build on what is actually a positive trend.

Mitchell Bard is the author of 20 books, including Will Israel Survive? and 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust.

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