The reality behind the campus encampments

The anti-Israel encampments that sprang up on campuses across the country haven’t been all bad. These public hate fests have provided clarity. After Columbia, everyone in the pro-Israel community seems to finally realize the severity of the challenge we face on America’s campuses. Gone are the days when leaders will blithely assure us that students will grow out of their foolish ideas when they graduate and get a mortgage.

As is so often the case, however, those suddenly waking up to a problem often tend toward panic and overreaction. We’re now being told that the campuses are lost. Leaders who should know better saw some ugly tent encampments populated by some radical students and have concluded that we can never again win a victory on campus. 

This is exactly the wrong response. We are certainly losing ground on campuses — we have been for over a decade — but the erosion is gradual and far from complete. There is still much we can do to slow and even reverse this trend. We can still engage, make allies and win battles. This is not a time to abandon the fight. This is a time to double down. 

The sound and fury of the encampments have not changed the fundamental reality on college campuses. Here’s what we know:

In May, a Generation Lab survey confirmed that only a small minority (8%) of college students have participated in the recent campus protests. Take away the 1% of students who reported demonstrating on the pro-Israel side, and we’re looking at 7% who came out to protest against Israel. They may be angrier, louder and better-funded, but they’re still a fringe.  

The real problem isn’t the mob you saw at the encampments. It’s the opinions of the students you didn’t see. 

This quiet(er) majority has been slowly but steadily becoming less supportive of Israel. Poll after poll over the course of the last decade has shown that a growing number of college students sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel.  

The Generation Lab survey highlights this point. Students ranked the conflict in the Middle East as the least important issue facing them out of nine options. At the same time, they were more likely to support the encampments than oppose them: 27% said they supported them strongly; 18% said they supported them a little bit; 30% were neutral; 12% said they were a little bit opposed; and 12% said they opposed them strongly. Additionally, among those respondents who said they didn’t personally participate in the protests, 9% said they favored the pro-Israel protests while 34% said they favored “protests against Israeli action in Gaza.”

We can reach and win most of the 90% of students who are not out demonstrating against Israel — even those who are critical of Israel. The problem with most Israel skeptics is not that they hate Jews, but rather that they believe the false narrative about Israel that dominates their circles. This is a critical distinction. If a false narrative is causing the problem, then the truth can remedy the problem. 

Like so many Americans these days, these students typically inhabit an insulated information silo. Almost all of the media and social media they consume tend to confirm the accepted progressive orthodoxy, and almost all of their professors ascribe to it as well: Israel is a white settler society that has conquered, dispossessed and abused the Palestinians, an indigenous people of color. The square peg of Israel has been forced into the round hole of DEI, and those in the thrall of this ideology will always take the side of whoever is perceived as the victim of color. It should come as no surprise when these students say anti-Israel things to pollsters. 

We understand how false this dominant anti-Israel narrative is. We know that most Israelis trace their roots back to the Muslim Middle East — from which their ancestors were forced to flee — and not to Europe. We know that the Jews are indigenous to Judea. We know that the Palestinian attempt to annihilate Israel at birth caused the Palestinian refugee crisis. We know that the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of repeated peace offers has fueled the conflict ever since.

But how do we penetrate the progressive silo to share these truths with those who would otherwise never encounter them?

The truth still works, but the standard tools for sharing the truth do not.

It’s good to bring pro-Israel speakers to campus; but if progressive students show up at all, it’s to protest the speakers, not to listen to them. 

It’s important to write pro-Israel articles and produce pro-Israel videos; but progressive students will rarely see them, let alone consume them.

It’s essential that pro-Israel students demonstrate and make their voices heard on campus. We dare not abandon the quad to the haters. But we must understand that these actions rarely change people’s minds. 

This is where our work at the Maccabee Task Force provides an important model and teaches a compelling lesson. We have found a way to break through the progressive silo and capture the attention of these students long enough to get them to see the truth about Israel. We bring the most politically influential students on each of our campuses — almost always progressive, and rarely Jewish — on fact-finding missions to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We introduce them to real Israelis and Palestinians. 

We show them the truth in all its nuance and complexity, and the results have been consistently surprising. 

For example, a survey of over 500 students who participated in our trips during the 2021-2022 academic year found that 98% of students who held anti-Israel views prior to their trip shifted towards a more favorable view of Israel after the trip (and this was measured six months after their return). Furthermore, while only 13% of participants considered themselves pro-Israel before the trip, a full 61% percent did after. 

These changed views lead to concrete actions. Pro-Israel students who join our trips make new friends and allies. Those new allies join their Jewish friends in leading pro-Israel marches and help them fight anti-Israel resolutions. During the 2022-2023 academic year, an anti-Israel resolution was able to pass on only one of the 100 campuses on which we are active. This year has been harder, as it always is during active fighting in Gaza, but we’re still making allies, pushing back and even winning some of these fights.

The success of our trips proves an extremely important point. Most student leaders are not anti-Israel because they are antisemites but because they are decent people who believe an ugly false narrative about Israel. When they see the truth about Israel, they change their minds. Once the lies are dispelled, skeptics and even vocal critics often become friends and allies. At a minimum, they realize that the issue is complex and conclude they shouldn’t support one-sided anti-Israel efforts like the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Were you outraged by the campus encampments? Good. Then don’t give up. Follow the example of our students and get in the fight. Try your best to shut illegal protests down. Make sure administrations protect Jewish students every bit as much as other minorities on campus. But do not abandon the most important effort of all: the fight for the hearts and minds of the majority. We can and do win this fight on a regular basis. The truth is a powerful ally. Now is the time to insist on telling the truth — and doing so in ways that will actually be heard. 

David Brog is the executive director of the Maccabee Task Force.