I had the good fortune to address a group of student activists recently who were just beginning school and were trying to anticipate and prepare for whatever anti-Israel activity might take place on their campuses this year.
The good news is that after years of having to run gauntlets of “Israel Apartheid Week” and “Apartheid Wall” protests, pro-Israel students have started to fight back, organizing themselves and launching their own varied programs and events to counter the ugly propaganda that has infected too many US colleges and universities over the last decade.
While there is no single organization linking these various groups, a dynamic seems to have emerged after years of Jewish students and Jewish organizations trying to figure out how to deal with the situation on campus (and each other).Within this dynamic, students who understand the specifics of their own school environment are running the show, knowing they can reach out to the wider Jewish community for training, speakers and other forms of help and support.
Having seen firsthand the success of such a protocol (at a nearby college, the local SJP actually cancelled their “Israel Apartheid Week” hate-fest, knowing the local pro-Israel group was more than ready to successfully counter them), it’s nice to know that Israel supporters on campus no longer have to take it on the chin year after year, or tear their hair out in frustration of not getting the help they need.
In the meantime, the opposition is not standing still.Their latest organizational incarnation of Students for Justice in Palestine had a national conference last week and, from looking at their agenda and statements, it’s clear they will not be keeping quiet during the current academic calendar.
Looking at the arrangement of forces in play, I predict stalemate with regard to campus Middle East politics during the 2011-2012 school year, at least with regard to the furtherance of the BDS agenda.This prediction is based on the following factors:
* Campus administrations and investment management groups have long ago decided they want nothing to do with the BDSers and their creepy campaign.This being the case, the chances for any actual divestment success remains stuck at zero
* Since Berkeley, pro-Israel student groups are no longer indifferent to what is being discussed and voted on in student government meetings.And since divestment votes only tend to get passed at these institutions when no one is paying attention, SJP groups can, at best, propose such legislation but the chances of seeing it passed remain extremely low
* That broad 90% of students who are largely indifferent to Middle East affairs seem to be showing a preference for the positive campaigning of Israel supporters vs. the negative messages and theatrics of Israel’s detractors
* School administrations are finally putting their foot down with regard to the type of violent disruptions and protests we saw in California last year (protests I always interpreted as a sign of weakness, resembling as they do the type of temper tantrums thrown by people who know they have lost the argument)
But SJP et al have a few aces up their sleeves, notably their imperviousness to setbacks and indifference to criticism which means they will keep up their campaigning regardless of whether it leads to any genuine BDS payoff.They also have the advantage of having clear (and militant) goals, which makes choosing attack-based strategies and tactics much easier (especially in a networked political environment where ideas can be shared and put into effect quickly on numerous campuses).In contrast, Israel supporters (like Israel itself), harbors hope not for the destruction of their political enemies but the opportunity to live in peace with them (or at least be left alone).As such, their choice of tactics is far less clear, no matter how well organized they might be.
The big wildcard to this prediction of stalemate (albeit a noisy one) is what happens over the coming months in the Middle East itself.For if there is another eruption of violence in the region (or, more specifically, if Israel decides to respond to attacks on it as they did in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009 since violent attacks on Israel are never a cause of protest on the part of alleged “peace activists” like SJP), then the dynamics on campus and everywhere else will change overnight.
But since the decision of whether there will be war or peace resides in places like Tehran and Damascus, more so than even Washington or Jerusalem (much less US campuses), there is not much to be done to control that dynamic.And so a stalemate at colleges and universities is likely to persist, coupled with silent prayers by SJP and its supporters for a new war to break out that can help give their “movement” renewed energy (regardless of how many people might die in the process).