Pro-Israel campus groups worry Iran deal debate will end in ‘anti-Semitic hatefest’
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Pro-Israel campus groups worry Iran deal debate will end in ‘anti-Semitic hatefest’

On the college frontlines, advocacy groups fear ratification of the nuke deal will expose a failure in Jewish leadership and have severe implications

At a StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship training in Los Angeles in late August, students discuss the Iran deal and how to bring it to campus. (courtesy)
At a StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship training in Los Angeles in late August, students discuss the Iran deal and how to bring it to campus. (courtesy)

With President Barack Obama seeming to have the support he needs to ensure the Iran nuclear deal passes in the United States Congress, pro-Israel groups on college campuses are starting to wake up to the new reality and asking themselves, “Now what?”

As Congress returns from its summer recess to debate the deal in a scheduled mid-September vote, many Jewish organizations are coordinating efforts at American universities to raise awareness about the dangers of the deal and, in effect, lobby against it.

“We’re getting students to voice their opinions against the Iran deal, attending town hall meetings, presenting opposition, and leading the charge by trying to get peers to call and send emails to congressmen,” said Brett Cohen, executive director of campus affairs at StandWithUs, which is part of a coalition that is devoting resources to mobilizing students against the pending nuclear agreement with Iran.

AIPAC-trained students are also launching efforts on campus, creating Facebook pages, reaching out to student leaders and coordinating lobbying efforts.

“Bipartisan pro-Israel student activists have been heavily engaged in their communities and campuses advocating against this bad deal and for a better deal,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Whittmann said in a statement by email.

But according to campus activists and organization leaders, the coalition’s efforts are failing to translate into unity on the ground, with some questioning whether so much resources should be spent when they need all they can to fight against the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement plaguing college campuses.

Retired Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently published “The Case Against the Iran Deal: How Can We Now Stop Iran from Getting Nukes?”” said in an interview with The Times of Israel, “A better way to use resources is to persuade students that the Iran deal is dangerous, not to oppose Congress.”

Prof. Alan Dershowitz with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office (Courtesy)
Prof. Alan Dershowitz with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office (Courtesy)

But with efforts focused on the deal rather than long-term strategy, campus activists are concerned over the role vocal opposition to it on campus will have on students’ ability to appeal to pro-Israel students in the future.

Student activist Justin Hayet, who was featured in the documentary “Crossing the Line 2” and who has spoken at rallies against the deal, said that the long-term consequences of bringing the fight to college campuses are not being considered.

‘The Iran deal can’t define Israel activism. The pro-Israel community is increasingly being perceived as [a group of] right-wing fanatics.’

“The Iran deal can’t define Israel activism,” he said. “The pro-Israel community is increasingly being perceived as [a group of] right-wing fanatics. If we let that stigma perpetuate, fighting BDS on campus will become increasingly challenging.”

Sarah Turbow, J Street U’s director, echoed these concerns: “I’m concerned that the position that other pro-Israel campus organizations have taken will further alienate them from the mainstream on campus,” she said.

Certain pro-Israel activists are choosing to sit this one out, waiting for the storm to pass before rejoining efforts on campus. Take University of Texas senior Brandon Mond, co-founder of Unify Texas, UT’s campus-wide organization devoted to mobilizing against BDS. Mond said he is worried that equating being pro-Israel with opposition to the Iran deal will only further distance young people from Israel.

Part of the problem, Mond said, is structural in how the broader Jewish community chooses to devote its efforts.

“I think the fact that within a day AIPAC went against [the deal] and then the American Jewish Committee shortly followed signaled to rank and file the position of the larger community, stifling dissent,” Mond said. “The way in which we take cues and structure our unity from larger organizations allows for it to be controlled at the top.”

For young, self-identified liberal and actively pro-Israel Jews like Mond, there is little room for dissent or even discussion over the merits of supporting the Iran deal.

Students at J Street's National Conference, March 23, 2015. (Moshe Zusman // J Street)
Students at J Street’s National Conference, March 23, 2015. (Moshe Zusman // J Street)

This disconnect between organizations and young people, noted by Turbow and Mond and others, runs contrary to Israel in Campus Coalition’s recent report, which claims “pro-Israel students are increasingly disciplined, coordinated and strategic thanks to the leadership of a broad coalition of national pro-Israel organization.”

Turbow said donors play a huge role in deciding campus strategy, putting pressure on organizations who share the same handful of funders to pursue certain objectives.

‘It’s a ghetto mentality to think that Jews shouldn’t oppose the president [on the Iran deal]’

Considering the wave of financial and political investment and surrounding controversy flowing into halting the nuke deal, its passage would expose a failure in leadership in the pro-Israel and Jewish community, with implications on college campuses, crucial battlegrounds in the fight to defend Israel.

This debate is treacherous because it exposes too much of the leadership of the Jewish community as being out of step with the majority of Jews, Robert Wexler, a Jewish former Democratic congressman from Florida, said in a recent Bloomberg interview.

Dershowitz said the Jewish community should not be moved by fear of alienation or public perception, crediting J Street and its dovish approach with the rise in anti-Israel sentiment on campus.

“It’s a ghetto mentality to think that Jews shouldn’t oppose the president [on the Iran deal],” Dershowitz said.

But StandWithUs’ Brett Cohen predicts that tensions will only increase on campus after the deal is voted on.

“What is dangerous right now,” he said, “is how people who oppose the deal are demonized as unpatriotic. I’m fearful that the victory celebration for supporters is going to spill over into an anti-Semitic hate fest.”

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