Monday, February 09, 2004

Good News on College Campuses

The college campus has long been a disaster area for Jews, the place where young men and women fresh out of high school abandon whatever residual commitment they have to our traditions and beliefs. Last year, much was made of a paper written by two young Orthodox Jews who described the corrosive impact of campus life on Modern Orthodox Jews. Since the start of the Intifada, we have had disturbing reports detailing anti-Israel activities at major universities, with Jewish faculty and students joining in efforts to bash Israel and to silence those who dare to respond.

Apart from the immediate pain and loss arising from religious abandonment and in many instances its displacement by hostility to Israel, what is transpiring on campuses is a harbinger of even worse news. Nearly all Jewish high school graduates head directly to college. By the time that they are 17 or 18, most have experienced advanced assimilation. If whatever little that is retained Jewishly is certain to be challenged by social pressures and the strongly secular environment of campus life, except for the Orthodox and relatively few non-Orthodox Jews, there will be few adult Jews who adhere to our heritage.

What has not been sufficiently examined is the linkage between religious commitment and support for Israel. As religiosity is discarded, there is a corollary change in attitude toward the Jewish State, as Jews who once were supporters of Israel show a lack of interest and, too often, even hostility. If it is true that the campus is inhospitable to religious continuity, it is inevitable that support for Israel among Jews will decline. This sociological datum apparently escapes the notice of demographers who bereft of scholarly integrity and, at times, influenced by the availability of funding have concocted the notion that secularism is a vibrant form of contemporary Judaism.

Efforts to counteract the baneful influence of the college experience are up against long odds that are made even longer because, as a Hillel study of Jewish freshmen showed a year ago, Jews tend to choose colleges far away from home, in large measure because they want to be away from their parents. Going to college is an act of breaking away, of abandoning roots, of attitudinal and behavioral changes. But if there is a key to strengthening Jewish commitment, it is forging a relationship between Jewish students and the State of Israel. Identification with Israel may in turn result in stronger religious identity.

I have seen as yet unpublished studies that provide evidence of a modest reversal of the historic pattern of Judaic abandonment on campus. Overall, of course, the news is not good. The outcome of campus life is for most Jewish students a weakening of commitment. But since some Jewish collegians have become stronger in their commitment and that is where our youth are, we must consider how campus activities can bring some Jews back to Judaism.

It appears that Israel is somehow the catalyst for beneficial campus outcomes. I believe that the harshness of anti-Israel rhetoric and activities has shocked some Jewish students and they have then bonded and become more determined to defend Israel. In turn, the strengthening of identity with Israel which in a sociological sense means greater isolation from other students, results in a more general strengthening of Jewish identity. Furthermore, the intense hostility toward Israel and the singling it out for the strongest condemnation as the worst offender against human rights have convinced some Jewish students who have had doubts about Israeli policies that the Jewish State is being unfairly treated and that there are strains of anti-Semitism in Israel-bashing.

This subject needs close attention and Israel advocacy on campus deserves increased support. Through Birthright Israel and other projects, there already has been a significant expansion of Israel-linked activities aimed at Jewish collegians.

There was much skepticism about Birthright when it was launched and for good reason. The product was being oversold and it still is. Can a 10-day free trip to Israel bring about the attitudinal transformation that the project’s cheerleaders have claimed for it? Early on, I argued in a magazine article that Birthright be given a chance because we have little else to counteract the ravages of advanced assimilation among our youth. The Intifada substantially reduced student participation – the situation has improved greatly of late – and the Israel government and Federations have not lived up to their financial commitments. While research on Birthright almost certainly presents a too rosy picture of results, it is fair to say that the initiative has achieved a measure of success, which is not a small accomplishment during a period when nearly all Jewish youth are being impelled further away from Judaism. Birthright merits full support by Israel and the philanthropic community.

Another promising approach is Israel advocacy. There are already attractive initiatives that have encouraged students who identify with Israel to withstand the bullying and anti-civil libertarian actions of Islamic groups and their campus allies, including students and faculty and Jews whose hatred of Israel corresponds with their hatred of Judaism. What has taken place at Rutgers and other campuses provides evidence that when pro-Israel forces do not back down, they are going to have an impact, if only because they have a good case to make.

I know that some writers have urged American Jews to go slow on campus, to pull punches, to avoid direct pitches on behalf of Israel. They reason that forceful advocacy will be counterproductive. Of course, what we say must be measured, yet I believe that there is value to making a direct and strong case for Israel. There is no gain when Israel serves as a punching bag and there is much to be gained when we stand up for what we believe in. Israel advocacy can turn the tide against the tidal waves of hostility to Israel and in a modest way it can help us preserve some of what we may yet lose.