A Failure of Leadership: Who Lost the Campus?

It was disappointing to read that the David Project – which we co-founded in 2002 in response to the Jewish establishment’s failure to address anti-Israelism on America’s campuses – has decided to join the mainstream (David Project steers toward the center, Feb. 4). We are proud of the outstanding accomplishment of the David Project in providing training in Jewish high schools and colleges, but we lament the organization’s retreat from precisely the sort of activism required to change a most serious situation for Jews on campus.

Cal students protest Israel

We created the David Project in the face of an upswing in anti-Israel obsession among opinion elites – in the media, in liberal church leadership, but especially among the professoriate and radical student groups. It was becoming clearer each day that the future leaders of America were being indoctrinated on campus to like Israel less and the Palestinian cause more. Jewish students, who were unprepared for the tsunami of anti-Israelism on campus, felt abandoned by the established Jewish organizations – even when they begged for help.

The Jewish community did not understand the nature and severity of the problem. Or what to do about it. The problem, as we saw it, was that Israel’s adversaries were portraying perpetual attacks on Israel as honest criticism – but were in fact carrying out well planned campaigns of vilification. These campaigns included shutting down pro-Israel speakers and intimidating Jewish students who dared – even in classroom discussions – to challenge the Palestinian narrative. The campus campaigns were generated, organized and funded by an international left/Muslim coalition loudly proclaiming “principles” of justice and human rights that were selectively applied – against us. This activity is abetted by many in university administrations who marginalize Jewish concerns and exclude Jews from the “sensitivity” and “hate speech” protections offered all other minorities.

In fact, campaigns to delegitimize the Jewish state are impervious to facts, logic and reason; they actually thrive upon the Jewish community’s instinctive response, which is to defend and “explain” Israel’s conduct. This response, best exemplified by Mitchell Bard’s ubiquitous handbook “Myths and Facts,” seeks to disprove each false claim – as though it were simply a matter of ignorance or misunderstanding, a “myth” and not a lie – and to set things straight. This cannot work when your adversaries have no interest in honest discussion. Indeed, each time you prove a claim to be wrong or an overreach, another claim is manufactured. This would have been obvious to Mark Twain, who remarked that “lies can travel around the world before truth puts its pants on.” Yet the Jewish community, despite 30 years of ineffectual attempts, continues to try to put on its pants.

For most groups, the most natural and effective response to a campaign of vilification is to announce to the world that you are being vilified, and to turn the finger of accusation back on the defamers. Who are these people who tell lies and photoshop the truth under the banner of journalism and academic freedom and human rights? To win, one has to break the silence about them, the defamers.

Our controversial film “Columbia Unbecoming” broke that silence, dramatically depicting the nature and extent of anti-Israelism on campus. It shocked New York as it exposed how radical professors abuse academic freedom, intimidate Jewish students and suppress honest discourse, while Jewish professors remained silent and the administration indifferent. The Jewish establishment was not happy with our film. They urged quiet, controlled, behind-closed-doors meetings – that lead nowhere. Sadly, the film predicted a growing trend: Now more and more campuses are “unbecoming.” Just ask Jewish students about Israel on campus.

Rather than deal forthrightly with the deteriorating campus scene, Jewish organizations adopted the “Israel beyond the conflict” method. This approach consciously ignores the waves of viciousness aimed at Israel and smilingly tells the world about Israel’s incredible achievements (as though the Nazis hadn’t ever heard of Jewish physicists!). But bragging about scientific and social miracles, while not exposing and countering the liars, can at best leave Israel, in the prescient words of CAMERA’s Andrea Levin, as “the apartheid state with nanotechnology.”

Defense and avoidance are failed strategies, yet they’re the ones adhered to by our conflict-averse Jewish leaders. Conflict with leftists and Muslims can fray the Jewish big tent and liberal sensitivities. Moreover, exposing radical Muslims’ bad behavior can get you sued – or labeled a bigot. We know. We also know what silence brings.

Reluctance to acknowledge a problem is a common institutional reflex: Announcing that there’s a serious problem implies that someone has failed. It also means that now someone has to do something. Meanwhile, all actions are risky – and effective actions can be controversial and may fail. There are so many reasons for Jewish leaders to shield their constituents from what they know: that our community has a deeply serious problem on American campuses that is not going away.

The original mission of the David Project was to change a losing strategy. We had to expose the nature, extent and sources of the assault – and indirectly the failure of the Jewish leadership. We created a new strategy, had significant successes and challenged the establishment.

Despite their stated concerns about the daunting challenges we face, too many Jewish leaders continue to display an unwillingness to speak honestly about the problem, a reluctance – when the times call for courage – to be, in the wonderful words of Facing History and Ourselves, “upstanders” and not bystanders.


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