December 17, 2013

ASA vote dooms a generation of Jewish students

The latest decision by the American Studies Association to "boycott" Israel and its institutions unleashes much negative energy, and my personal experience leads me to regret its long-term impact on a generation of students.

Many of my pro-Israel friends regularly bemoan the amount of attention the mainstream media devotes to Israel's foibles, and to sympathetic portrayals of Israel's adversaries and detractors. This complaint has some basis in fact, though it's also true that Israelis and American Jews invite coverage, and that much of the coverage is positive. As well, many of the problem stories originate in Israel's own mainstream media.

Meanwhile, many thousands of Jewish students have been deployed as "shock troops" against a "sophisticated campaign to discredit Israel on the college campus." That was in the 1980s, and one of many slogans drilled into my head at the time. I took my mission seriously, and devoted untold hours -- often working through the night -- to assure that the evil anti-Israel students were held off at the ramparts. 

No doubt, thousands of impressionable minds were spared as a result of my brave sacrifice. 

After the Cold War ended and while Oslo still held promise, I asked one big-name Hillel colleague how the less contentious atmosphere was affecting turnout to his programs. He told me numbers were up, and for the first time in years most students were coming in just because they wanted to be Jewish, and they were learning about... being Jewish.

Fast-forward to today, when another defiant Prime Minister of Israel is making waves, dovetailing with the legacy of another arrogant U.S. former President, and the Jewish (sorry, "pro-Israel") community is again issuing general calls for mobilizing brigades of students for early warning and propaganda response.

With various studies like the recent Pew report reporting the obvious decline in American Jewish affinity, giving Jewish college students a compelling sense of duty is a good way to keep them engaged (and, maybe, to get engaged to fellow Jews). But it's a little like the mismatched couple who stay together "for our children's sake". 

Only later, I realized how many educational and social opportunities I missed, in order to be a tuition-paying activist for Israel, along with a few other nice Jewish causes. Only later, I realized I might have learned something from all those disagreeable anti-Israel speeches, had I listened to their substance rather than red-flagging them for the Q&A and long reports back to HQ.

Yes, the American Studies Association has disgraced itself, and so many American studies scholars who have better things to do than wasting their time on ideological conferences and sloganeering. And yes, some Israeli academics will be unjustly inconvenienced and be denied proper recognition.

What I will lose sleep over is how this decision will generate ever more momentum for young Jews to forgo the campus experience, to shut their perceptive faculties, as they hunker down for full-fledged pitched battles in lecture halls, campus media, and student senates. Along the way, they may strengthen their identity as defensive, combative and doubt-free supporters of Israel. They will be encouraged and funded by our major organizations and lauded back home in their parents' congregations. 

Many will outgrow that phase, and many will not. Still more will only watch all this from the sidelines, later recalling Judaism as a pro-Israel answer to a potent but marginal group of academics. And then, 25 years from now, the Pew Center will call them up and ask whether they feel attached to the Jewish people. Spoiler alert...

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