JERUSALEM — Within the past year, three student-run legislative bodies at University of California (UC) state schools—UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC San Diego—passed resolutions urging divestment from Israel, in addition to allegations of the harassment of pro-Israel students on campuses. Yet at the same time, such resolutions were defeated at UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Santa Barbara, as well as outside the UC system at Stanford University.
Who has the upper hand in the ongoing struggle on campus between Jewish students and advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel? Experts at the 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference last week in Jerusalem expressed optimism about where pro-Israel students stand—with the most positive tone coming from University of California President Mark Yudof.
“Despite what you may have heard, Jewish students are thriving,” Yudof said on a June 19 Presidential Conference panel titled “Campus as a Crossroads in the Life of a Young Jew.”
Yudof’s fellow panelists were Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, Taglit-Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, Chairperson of the European Union of Jewish Students Andi Gergely, and Israel Government Fellow and recent Cornell University graduate Rachel Greenspan.
Talking about BDS, even Sharansky, the most restrained panelist in terms of his optimism, appeared to cautiously agree that anti-Israel efforts on North American campuses did not appear to be picking up steam. “It seems like there is less energy to anti-Israel movements on campuses, but it is hard to say if you are winning or losing,” he said.
Nevertheless, Sharansky made clear his views on the need for college campus communities to mobilize support for Israel, recounting what he told then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a decade ago.
“Our main battlefield for the future is on American campuses,” Sharansky said he told Sharon. Sharansky attributed the improvement on campuses since that time partially to the work of organizations like Taglit-Birthright, Caravan for Democracy, StandWithUs, and others.
Much credit was given during the panel discussion to Birthright in particular, for shoring up young Diaspora Jews’ identification with Israel. According to numbers presented to the panel by Birthright’s CEO, Gidi Mark, more than 330,000 Jews from 62 countries have visited Israel on one of Birthright’s 10-day organized trips. Mark also noted that according to a study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Birthright trip participants were 46 percent more likely to feel very connected to Israel and 51 percent more likely to marry a Jew, compared to trip applicants who did not end up participating on a trip.
Yudof has responded to BDS efforts in the California state school system by reiterating a 2005 UC Regents policy that UC divest from foreign countries only when the U.S. declares that a foreign government is committing genocide. As part of his response to allegations of on-campus harassment of pro-Israel students, in 2010 Yudof instituted a system across UC for reporting incidents of intolerance or bias as means to provide reliable data on harassment on campus communities.
Nevertheless, Yudof doesn’t think the BDS is much to worry about.
“I don’t see much political base or gravitas, in a political sense, for the BDS movement,” he said.
Yudof also expressed his opposition to suppressing BDS activities on campuses.
“We aren’t going to silence these people on campus, nor should we,” said Yudof. “If anything that effort will backfire,” he added.
During both the panel discussion and an interview with JNS.org, Yudof said he seeks to create positive ways for Jewish students to be more informed about their own identity. In particular, he mentioned the UC system’s reinstatement of its foreign exchange program to Israel in 2009, which he oversaw. The exchange program returned following a seven-year hiatus due to the U.S. State Department putting Israel on its travel advisory list.
Yudof told JNS.org that while he believes it is acceptable for organizations outside the campus community such as pro-Israel advocacy groups to provide support to students when they request it, he sometimes thinks those outside groups treat campuses too much as battlegrounds.
“Have a little faith in your own children,” Yudof said. “They are not pawns to be manipulated.”