THIS year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) has caused the usual Jewish community brouhaha. There’s an element of truth in the perceptions of many in the community, but the reality, as well as the methods many think should be used to counter it, are increasingly divergent.
Students and campuses are seen as a hotbed of activism; something about the critical and creative thinking, the spare time, and the ideological fervour of youth that, mixed together, leads to thoughts of revolution.
However, in 2012, Australian university students are concerned with few things other than learning a little, earning their degree, and sharing a beer with friends. In particular this current cohort, scarred by years of negligently underfunded student services – thanks in part to Howard government era reforms – have lowered their expectations of campus life even further. They don’t expect, and indeed now few want, anything other than classes and pubs.
This is why the headline in last week’s AJN, “AUJS chooses to turn back on Israeli-apartheid Week”, is so misleading, painting a picture of Jewish student disregard for the also incorrectly perceived frothing-at-the-mouth anti-semitism many think occurs daily on campus.
I’ve been on campus since 2006, and in that time I can say that the number of people convinced by the far-left fanatics that run IAW and promote the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign on campus pale in comparison to the people who simply don’t care. These groups are so marginalised, so on the fringe, that at best they form a tiny slither of the total student population.
Seeing Soviet-style red flags waved on campus stalls is literally the red flag in students’ minds to turn away. Often accosted as they walk past, they switch off further; Australian students simply don’t respond to that. Students just don’t have the mass revolution mindset they’re trying to evoke, something our parents’ generation did in protesting the war in Vietnam, and our Israeli and European brethren still share.
It’s because of all this and so much more that the radical IAW and BDS activists have so far failed so demonstrably to gain any kind of traction. While there is undoubtedly a sustained effort on their part to divert funding and attention to their cause, they have been hitherto foiled by a combination of Jewish groups and moderate student leaders with great success.
This is why we need to be much smarter in reaching the public, and do two things above all else. First, we should all stop talking about IAW and BDS altogether. A recent Israeli government finding that 65 per cent of mentions of such things occur in the Jewish press, or by Jewish commentators, is damning. We’re giving the campaigns oxygen and contributing to public familiarity of their messages.
Second, on campus, a positive environment should be created to speak honestly about Israel, Palestine and the peace process. Countering their protests with our own right next door will only spur a “pox on both your houses” paradigm; as students (and the wider public, for that matter) tune out to their arguments, they too will begin to listen to Jewish students less and less.
Instead, the focus should be on creating a space to talk about real issues and build support for a fair and just two-state solution – the discussion by students should include promoting the ideas of having both Israelis and Palestinians returning to the negotiating table, a curb on incitement on both sides, and the end of the occupation.
If we are worried about progressive student groups, like Greens and Labor clubs, adopting BDS resolutions, then it makes sense to engage people who speak their language. Progressive Zionists, often themselves marginalised in the community, who can speak about their support of Israel’s status as a Jewish-democratic state, but also honestly about their shared concern of the current government’s unhelpful trajectory, will make great progress there.
However, as it stands, the community seems more intent on loudly championing mythology – for example, “Israel is a model democracy”, ignoring the ongoing occupation and new anti-democratic laws; “we have no partner for peace”, ignoring continued illegal settlement activity and a Palestinian Authority ready to negotiate under reasonable terms – and naively thinking these lines will be swallowed whole by the wider population. Of all people, university students, made more sceptical by their Gen-y upbringing, are immune to such dishonesty.
The two-state solution can triumph as the lingua franca on campus, so long as Jewish students adapt their message to the reality of universities, and promote reasonable, fair and honest interaction with the ongoing conflict. Let’s support them in doing just that.
This op-ed was originally published in the Australian Jewish News on March 8, 2012.