What I Learned This Semester in College
It was an interesting semester for students and quite an eye-opener for me as I traveled to 15 campuses under the auspices of Hillel and AIPAC to speak about current issues, do some advocacy training, and teach about the myths and facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The bottom line is that we have a lot of work to do and the problems go far beyond the woeful lack of knowledge of our future leaders.
First, the good news, at least for me. I sampled colleges large and small from one coast to the other and in between and I was pleasantly surprised that my reception was not more hostile. On only two of the campuses were there protests outside before my talks and only my last lecture, at the University of Washington, became overly heated. My one fear going in was that my talks would be disrupted and none were. Afterward, it didn’t bother me that critics ranted and raved. I actually welcomed the hostile questions because it gave me a chance to show the students that a) there are responses to the nonsense they hear on campus, b) they shouldn’t be intimidated, and c) they can answer challenges in a civil way.
To some extent I was lucky. For one thing I’m probably not well-known enough to attract protestors. By contrast, I understand my friend Daniel Pipes has gained an undeserved reputation as an enemy of the Muslims and provokes stronger reactions at his appearances. Also, at many places I spoke to predominantly Jewish audiences. For example, at Berkeley the timing of my visit resulted in me speaking only to the Jewish students at Hillel rather than the entire campus where I would have undoubtedly had a different experience.
One of the most interesting phenomena I observed was that students have totally different expectations of pro-Israel speakers from anti-Israel ones. No one expects the Hanan Ashrawis to give anything but a pro-Palestinian propaganda lesson; however, I found that students expected me to give an evenhanded academic discourse. They were genuinely taken aback when I offered them a full-frontal assault on the Arab myths and an unapologetic pro-Israel message.
The students I met desperately crave information and want to fight back, but only a handful on most campuses are active and knowledgeable. They usually get little or no help from the faculty or community. With only a couple of notable exceptions, such as Emory, neither professors nor adults from the community showed up to hear me or demonstrate support for the students. On several campuses Arab professors would be in the audience to try to make counter speeches in the Q&A period and at Washington the majority of the audience was Arabs from outside the campus. I only remember one Jewish professor who came to a talk and he was very grateful to hear an alternative to the anti-Israel nonsense put out by the leftists at Vermont (I didn’t even know Marxists still existed!). This confirmed my view that the most important step we can take to win the war on campus is to endow chairs of Israel studies.
It was also interesting to see how Jewish students reacted when I was attacked by the Arabs. They did not jump up to my defense, yell at the other side, or stand up and make Israel’s case. Typically there would be one Jewish student who would stand up and try to be a mediator, asking everyone to stay calm and reasonable. After the lecture, the Jewish students who’d sat sheepishly while I was under attack (don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself) would inevitably say that they faced similar vitriol all the time and they were glad I’d come and given them ammunition to respond.
The best part of my experience was meeting students. So many want to learn, to fight back against the lies, to feel proud of their heritage and their homeland. Believe me, if you get involved with the campuses, and help the students out with funding, information, and moral support, you’ll get back far more than you give.
Everyone will be on vacation soon, but it is no time for rest. We have three months to prepare students and to organize advocacy and education programs to assist them for what will be another turbulent year. Our children need our help. Will you be there for them?