Campus Protests and the New Israel Fund

9 May 2024
Daniel Sokatch FB social share

For me, like for so many of us, the protests around the Gaza war on campus are hitting close to home, and not just because it dominates the news. I have two daughters in college right now, one of whom is about to graduate this week. Both of my kids support efforts to bridge the “pro-Palestinian” versus “pro-Israeli” divide on campus. They work to find common ground, and they are heartbroken by the suffering on both sides. It is tough, they say, and getting tougher to do so. 

I know this from my own personal experience too. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on college campuses over the past few months speaking alongside my friend Salam Al-Marayati, President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Salam and I certainly do not agree on everything, but we are able to model respectful disagreement for students, and show them how—when honesty and respect are the basis of a conversation—they might discover unexpected common ground and realize how much they can accomplish together. Our talks have been so successful that Salam and I have been invited to teach a class this coming fall together. It will be called “Israel, Palestine, and Us: How to Understand and Talk About the Most Controversial Topic in the World.” At a time when emotions are extremely high, when disagreement turns vituperative and even poisonous, and when both Jewish and Arab-American students report feeling unseen and unsafe, we will try to model a different kind of conversation—one predicated on a shared understanding of history, compassion for the narratives of both Jews and Palestinians, and a recognition that the only sane and moral way forward is a shared future.

Ultimately, too much of the conversation about what is happening on campus—and indeed those conversations on campus themselves—suffers from too little humility, strong emotions, and too little actual information. In such an environment, extremists grab the limelight very easily. It’s like our wise, International Council member Rabbi Sharon Brous said to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour the other day:

When you’re fed a diet of extremism you think the only answer is eliminationist—for my people to have justice, your people must be wiped out. But it’s not true. We have been fed falsehood. And, in fact, the only response to this will be when Israelis and Palestinians figure out how to build a just and shared future.

I couldn’t agree more. Especially because figuring out what that shared future looks like, and how to build it is what NIF does every day.

That’s why my advice to college students wrestling with the nightmare in Gaza is the same as my advice to all of us: inform yourself via trustworthy sources, stay curious, speak with compassion, listen with the same, and then activate yourself—do the work on the ground that will make things better, including by contributing to that work. 

A few nights ago I took my dog for a walk by the protest encampment at a nearby university. It was late and quiet. No chanting. No offensive signs. Two student journalists approached me and asked me what I, as a resident of the neighborhood, thought about the encampment on campus and for my views on student calls for transparency around the university’s investments. I told them what I believe: It is their right to know how the university is investing their tuition money, and their right to weigh in on how that money was invested. But also, I added, if the university is going to examine its investments in one country or one conflict, it should also examine all of its investments by running them through the same ethical filter. They listened as I also described how some criticism of Israel can veer into antisemitism. 

A few days later, when the UCLA campus protests erupted into chaos and violence, I thought about our friendly, thoughtful, compassionate conversation. I imagined that those student journalists probably felt the same way I did about the clashes in LA: It didn’t have to be this way.

I share this anecdote to raise an important question about—and critique of—some of the campus protests: those student journalists I spoke with were (understandably enough) focused on the situation on campus, here at home. They weren’t writing about the war or about the ongoing suffering and violence that has continued since the horror of October 7. And that focus on what is happening on campuses is true of the mainstream press as well. As New York Times columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote, the protests on campus are driving the conversation away from what is actually happening on the ground in Gaza and Israel: 

After all, what are we talking about right now? It’s not hunger in Gaza. It’s not a potential invasion of Rafah, which the U.N. humanitarian chief said this week would be “a tragedy beyond words.”

Instead, we are discussing the student leader at Columbia who said in January, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He was exceptional and later apologized—but he badly discredited the cause. I fear that zealotry within the protester echo chamber can lead activists to make such appalling comments or make excuses for them, thus driving people away.

Kristof offers two solutions—both of which are very much in the New Israel Fund wheelhouse: first, he suggests that student protestors raise funds for organizations on the ground doing good work to help people. That’s what NIF always does, and why our grantee list is so long. He mentions the organization Gisha (which is on that list of NIF grantees) and also urges students to support organizations working to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. NIF is doing that too. We’ve raised over three quarters of a million dollars to help civilians on the brink of famine.

Kristof’s second proposal is that protesting students make the effort to get proximate; to go to the West Bank and Israel to learn first hand about the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, and to protest for civil and human rights alongside them. This is precisely the kind of experience NIF has long offered young people through our various fellowships, and that we also offer to our donors, in the form of study tours. 

Another New York Times columnist referred even more directly to NIF’s critical importance at this challenging moment. In his column this week, Thomas Friedman wrote:

What Palestinians and Israelis need most now are not performative gestures of disinvestment but real gestures of impactful investment, not the threat of a deeper war in Rafah but a way to build more partners for peace. Invest in groups that promote Arab-Jewish understanding, like the Abraham Initiatives or the New Israel Fund. 

It made me proud to see Kristof and Freidman, two trusted and experienced journalists, come to the same conclusion: That, at the end of the day, supporting NIF and our grantees is one of the most important things Americans can do to actually help ease suffering, repair what has been broken, and lift up those Israelis and Palestinians who reject violence and work for a truly shared future.