Campus Study Validates Opposing Some Israeli Policies in Yesha
A recent study conducted using students from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has led to a debate by pro-Israel organizations on how the Jewish State should be defended on American college campuses. The Israel Project, a Washington-based Israel advocacy group, conducted the recent study which showed that even the most educated and decidedly pro-Israel students are hesitant to speak out in the face of anti-Zionist accusations. The study put 15 unsuspecting Jewish students from Harvard and MIT into a small room with 20 non-Jewish peers and prompted them to candidly discuss the State of Israel. The tone of the discussions quickly became strongly critical of the Jewish state and its policies but many of the Jewish participants were hesitant to rush to Israel’s defense.
Frank Luntz, the pollster who served as the group’s facilitator and who in an earlier TIP policy paper not only acknowledged that expelling Jewish residents from their homes in Judea and Samaria would constitute an “ethnic cleansing” but also recommended that pro-Israel advocates put forward this point, said he found the results of the study to be “horrifying.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of The Israel Project, which works primarily in the realm of media and public opinion, found the results so disturbing that she declined to post them on her organization’s internet site. “If it had been students from any other campuses I would not have been horrified. But this was the best and the brightest. I know it involved only 30 people and that’s not the same as an 800-person poll but its still problematic. A leader is a leader, and those who are selected to attend Harvard and MIT are more intelligent and successful than the vast majority of people.”
The problem, Mizrahi said, was “not that they [the Jewish students] were too open-minded, it is that they were too quiet.”
In a detailed memo describing the experiment, Luntz pointed out that the students did not know the religious or ethnic backgrounds of the other students in the room. They knew that they were being paid $100 for their opinions regarding United States foreign policy but they did not know the focus would be on the Middle East or Israel. For three hours the students, who with a few exceptions did not know one another, engaged in a candid discussion facilitated by Luntz.
“Needless to say, the results of the group were truly eye-opening,” he wrote. “They’re perhaps best summarized by the following exchange, which took place early on in the session. When we first started discussing Israel, it was only a matter of minutes before the phrase ‘the Israel lobby’ was uttered, along with direct references to Jewish money. The problem, frankly, wasn’t that these terms and topics were broached. The problem was the type of negativity directed toward them. This is Harvard and MIT, and yet none of the Jewish students interjected during this exchange to offer an opposing viewpoint. The question you should be asking is not why smart Jewish students are having so much trouble on American college campuses, but instead, why these students are not standing up for Israel. You can’t blame the institutions when the students who attend them are the ones at fault.”
Matthew Cohen, president of the Harvard Students for Israel and the only student in the focus group who was not promised anonymity due to his high-profile position on campus, said he felt he handled himself better than Luntz’s analysis suggests. He argued that he was one of the few who spoke out in opposition to the anti-Israel comments but added that in retrospect he could have done more.
Mizrahi attempted to add a positive spin to the results of the study by comparing them to a similar test conducted in 2002 that found many Jewish students from the same two schools to have much less knowledge of and emotional connection to Israel. “The Jewish students were much more informed and comfortable with Israel. But the problem is that the best and brightest still don’t have it in their kishkas to stand up for Israel under the social pressure of their peers… It didn’t happen and it’s disappointing because they are knowledgeable. Most knew the answers and are very aware of the issues.”
Many of the Jewish students had attended advocacy training sessions offered by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy organization active in the United States. But Mizrahi reported that even those students were quiet.
No representatives of the David Project were available for comment but another pro-Israel organization active on American college campuses told Israel National News that the problem is not with any particular students or campuses but rather with the general direction of pro-Israel advocacy. Benny Katz of the Zionist Freedom Alliance said that most advocacy organizations offer pro-Israel students dry information without nurturing a passionate commitment to the Zionist struggle. “There is a difference between being pro-Israel and being a Zionist. The Israel Project and the David Project are pro-Israel groups in that they defend the government of Israel’s actions, even when morally wrong, but they do not deal with the crucial underlying issues. ZFA teaches students that it is OK to criticize the Israeli government’s policies so long as that criticism is attached to a greater message of Jewish national rights to self-determination in all lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.”
Katz, who identifies himself as coming from the far-Left of the American political spectrum, argues that most Israel advocacy groups have “no clue how to engage progressive students who are active in struggles for social justice and human rights.”
“Rather than speak about the justice of the Zionist revolution or of the Jewish people’s legal and historic rights to the Land of Israel, these groups are teaching students to present Israel as a Western outpost in the Middle East that’s wiling to shrink its own borders and expel Jews from their homes in order to avoid having to fight for its rights. This is a pathetic image of Israel that has clearly alienated students looking to champion justice in the world.”
Katz agreed with Luntz’s assessment that expelling Jewish residents from Judea and Samaria would constitute an ethnic cleansing and that using such language would actually empower pro-Israel students to put issues into perspective for their peers. “It [the ethnic cleansing argument] paints a completely different picture of the Middle East conflict and moves the paradigm away from the contemporary anti-Israel narrative which portrays Jews as Western colonialists. It creates a sense of urgency for Jewish students to act and makes clear that our work is not merely to defend Israeli government positions but actually to resist an injustice from being perpetrated against us. This is a language that progressive students can identify with even if they don’t agree with our positions.”
At the end of the session, Luntz asked everyone to write down the number of Jewish students they believed were in the room of 35 students. The average response of the non-Jewish students was nine, when there were actually 15.
“The room was almost half full of Jews, but to the non-Jews listening to the conversation, there were too few people with too few voices speaking up and being heard,” Luntz said. “And remember, this is from the same people who talked about the all-powerful ‘Israel Lobby.’”
The non-Jews were then asked to leave the room. When they had gone, Mizrahi said, the Jewish students became “amazingly articulate on the issues. They had the knowledge and they had in most cases the belief.”
Luntz pointed out that when he asked the Jewish students how they believed they did in defending Israel, he said that all had a positive initial reaction. “But as I asked them to reflect on what was said and what wasn’t the evaluations became more candid… and a lot more regretful.”