With apologies to Mr. Dickens, how can it be both? And yet, so it is.
For many reasons, the state of Israel on campus at the dawn of 2012 is the very best of times. Israel is strong and prosperous. The nation of Israel continues to post stunning growth despite global economic woes. Recently, the government of Israel announced that the Israeli unemployment rate had dropped to 5% for the first time in history—and wouldn’t we like a little of that here in North America? Israel’s economy is renowned for its energy and creativity, giving rise to high-tech startups and innovations that would make Silicon Valley sick with envy. And indeed, those interested in making the very best learning environments on campus in North America are paying attention, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, who recently awarded a development contract worth in excess of $400 million to a joint project between Cornell University and Haifa’s Technion to develop a high-tech campus for New York; the project is expected to spin off as many as 600 high-tech companies and over $23 billion in jobs and new growth.
Interest in Israel remains high on campus, too. Over 300,000 students have visited Israel in the past decade through the transformative vision of Taglit: Birthright Israel, including a record number just in the past few days; still greater, record-breaking numbers are expected through 2013. A study from 2010 indicated that the total number of courses offered nationwide in the United States regarding modern Israel had increased by almost 70% in less than five years. A recent survey of college students nationally, conducted by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and The Israel Project, reflects continued strong positive sentiments among both Jewish and non-Jewish students. And, as the readers of these pages hardly need reminding, the opportunities to connect with Israel and Israelis, and to support Israel on campus, remain legion.
In light of such good news, how can these be “the worst of times”? First, it is not hyperbole to say that even with the history of conflicts that threatened its survival, Israel is now facing a threat utterly different in kind and scale in the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Defying international sanctions and every possible incentive to turn back, Iran continues to hurtle headlong toward acquiring nuclear weapon capability, becoming increasingly belligerent to the United States, Israel and the world as it does so. The international community and Israel face this threat at the same time that Israel waits, seemingly in vain, for the Palestinian leadership to engage in serious negotiations and turn away from its continued attempts to circumvent direct talks through international grandstanding.
On campus, the threats to Israel continue. Speakers, events and conferences calling for ostracism or boycotts, divestment and sanctions appear on prominent campuses; campus quad theatrics of mock checkpoints, “die-ins” and mock graveyards are unveiled at many schools. While the tired tropes of “Israel apartheid” will doubtless be trotted out on many campuses this spring, the threat remains that Israel’s detractors will ultimately succeed, somewhere, in finding just one gullible student government, one uninformed campus administrator, or one misguided faculty body that will do as none have ever yet done, and endorse an anti-Israel action. When that happens, Israel’s detractors can be expected to crow with delight, regardless how trivial the decision may be in context.
Against this context of constant defense, the network of campus Israel supporters cannot win; unless they change the context, they can only hope to continue to play not to lose.
With these trends for both best and worst of times, it is more important than ever that campus Israel supporters remain strategic in their approach. Focusing on strategic goals for campus this spring—the relationships with campus decision-makers that the campus Israel network had decided upon in the fall, the key events to which the year of campus activity has been building and the positive changes they seek to create on their campus—will extend their circles of influence, create positive momentum and help to ensure that 2012 becomes “the best of times.”