LOS ANGELES — Amidst the rancor of anti-Israel propaganda, Prager University is waging a digital war. If such battles are won by whopping numbers of online views alone, its strategy seems to be winning. But not everyone agrees.
“Prager University is the most widely viewed pro-American, pro-Israeli, pro-Judeo-Christian values site in the world,” its founder, the radio talk show host and author Dennis Prager, told The Times of Israel. “We had 250 million views last year and are on schedule to have half a billion views this year. The largest segment of viewers is under 35 years of age.”
PragerU’s multi-million dollar budget underwrites scores of videos that netted more than 150 million views in 2016. The organization boasts a fan base of more than 2 million individuals and a “student force” culled from universities around the world.
Earlier this month, some 250 supporters of Israel gathered from across around North America at a live event called “The Summit.” Besides Prager, speakers included PragerU CEO Marissa Streit, syndicated columnist, author and political commentator Charles Krauthammer and Kimberley Strassel, author, journalist and member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.
Yet some observers question the organization’s positions. The media company’s pro-Israel arguments are aligned with broader conservative positions. Often, they trigger dissonance among strongly identified Jews, Israel supporters and scholars alike.
Some issues, such as outright Jew-hatred, of course, rarely foster division. Prager asserts anti-Semitism, “the scourge of mankind,” is an early indicator of more problems to come.
“Non-Jews who think anti-Semitism is only the Jews’ problem need to read about miners’ canaries — about miners who think that when canaries die of noxious fumes those fumes won’t kill them,” he says.
Via email, Prager told The Times of Israel that “Nothing better identifies incipient evil than anti-Semitism.”
‘Non-Jews who think anti-Semitism is only the Jews’ problem need to read about miners’ canaries’
Though some might view his statements as oversimplification, Prager nevertheless sees his namesake non-profit as a “growing alternative to the moral and intellectual wasteland known as the Western university.”
As he explains, “Due to the influence of leftism in high schools and universities, vast numbers of young Jews are alienated from Israel and believe that Israel’s enemies are the moral party in the Arab-Israeli, Muslim-Israeli, and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.”
Aside from pro-Israel content, PragerU videos also argue that the vast majority of abortions are immoral in a video which garnered 1.1 million views, and that modern art is “ugly, silly and offensive,” in a clip that racked up a whopping 1.8 million views.
A video entitled “Left but Really Right” argues the success of liberals relies on employing conservative values. Greg Gutfeld, author of “How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct,” asserts hard work and earned reward are tactics belonging to the right. This video has netted more than 790,000 views since November 2015.
The organization also counters positions US President Donald Trump has tweeted, such as his question about the motivations for the Civil War. In a PragerU video attracting 1.3 million views, Colonel Ty Seidule, Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, provides the same one-word answer Chelsea Clinton tweeted back at the President: “slavery.”
While simultaneously promoting itself, PragerU criticizes the left and its impact on Jewish life.
“The most important issue facing any constituency is the decline of the West as a result of leftism, not liberalism, which has been overtaken by leftism, having become over the last hundred years the most dynamic religion in the world — far more dynamic than either Christianity or Islam, not to mention Judaism,” Prager says. “During this past century, leftism has influenced Judaism and Christianity far more than Judaism and Christianity have influenced the world.”
The ‘poisonous’ Jewish left
PragerU’s approach is clearly not for everyone. Nor is Prager’s premise that the left has negatively impacted American Jewish culture.
“That many American synagogues sat shiva [mourned], and that there are American rabbis who publicly fasted, after Donald Trump was elected president, that departments of Jewish Studies at leading American universities invite pro-BDS Israel-haters, as the UCLA department of Jewish Studies did last year when it invited Cornel West, gives you some sense of how much of Jewish life has been poisoned by the left,” Prager says.
Some academicians question the accuracy of Prager’s positions.
“Prager’s comments are spurious, overly broad, and, basically inaccurate,” writes Ari Y. Kelman, Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University. “They do not represent the general conditions of Jewish student life on college campuses, and they do not represent the experiences or intentions of many of the faculty associated with Jewish Studies with whom I have spoken. And I am fairly certain that I have more interaction with both students and faculty than Prager does, which leads me to wonder where he gets his information from.”
Kelman, who also serves as associate director of Stanford’s Berman Jewish Policy Archive of some 40,000 journal articles and research reports is in the midst of a student-focused research project. He and his own students have interviewed about 80 enrollees on five California campuses, Kelman says.
“I can speak with some authority about the lives of college students because my students and I are in the middle of a research project on how Jewish students are making sense of politics around Israel, being Jewish, Palestine, and other issues on campus,” says Kelman.
Daniel Schwartz, an associate professor of history and the director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University, says he is “all too familiar with Prager’s right-wing extremism.” Schwartz, an active member of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), says he would not have joined if “I weren’t concerned about the rash of BDS initiatives on college campuses in the US in the past few years.”
Founded in December 2015, AEN consists of university faculty members, administrators, and staff. The group, which recently held its second national conference, adheres to these tenets: opposition to the BDS movement, support of free speech, academic freedom and vigorous on-campus discussion about Israel.
‘I am skeptical of the notion that BDS campaigns created an atmosphere on college campuses that is hostile’
“I am generally skeptical of the notion that boycott and divestment campaigns have created an atmosphere on college campuses that is ‘hostile’ to robust forms of Jewish self-identification and expression, just as I tend to be skeptical of the way the current generation of college students speaks obsessively about a need to feel ‘safe’ on campus, in a way that tends to favor the suppression of certain kinds of speech,” Schwartz says.
“But I agree that a distorted image of Israel on college campuses has become the norm, and that progressive Jewish students increasingly feel as if they are being made to choose between being ‘pro-Israel’ — in the broadest, most non-Pragerian sense of the term — and being solidly identified with the left.
“That said, if my experience at GW is any indication, Prager couldn’t be more wrong about the notion that Jewish students are turning their back on Israel. This was a fast-moving initiative here that gave opponents little time to prepare. But Jewish students organized in vast numbers and with remarkable foresight and acumen to fight back the resolution,” says Schwartz.
At a recent GW Student Association meeting deliberating over a resolution to comply with BDS, the senatorial debate was preceded by some three hours of public comment, most of it by students opposed to the resolution, Schwartz says.
‘Prager’s dystopian view of Israel on college campuses says more about his ideological blinders than about the actual situation on the ground’
“I asked the Hillel rabbi if he had seen anything like the Jewish show of strength in his seven years at GW and he told me, ‘Frankly, this is more students than we get on Yom Kippur.’ Are there disaffected Jewish students who were indifferent to the fate of the BDS resolution? To be sure. It’s also true that a tiny number of Jews supported the resolution. But Prager’s dystopian view of a support for Israel on college campuses all but sapped by the evil left says more about his ideological blinders than about the actual situation on the ground,” says Schwartz.
All about the brand
Given its sometimes controversial positions, PragerU employs several security precautions at its physical address in Los Angeles, which remains unlisted. A recent visit revealed simple offices preparing numerous mailings.
Branding is everywhere. The PragerU logo appears not only on the conference room glass walls, but also on water bottles, tote and adhesive pocket wallets that can be attached to cell phones. Despite the organization’s pervasive pro-American art, with the Statute of Liberty and other icons, and similar messaging in its videos, much of the swag is labeled “made in China.” It is sent as thank you gifts to the organization’s legions of donors, explains Streit.
The organization’s efforts are funded primarily by donations. “Many people give $5 to $10 a month,” Streit says. “For 2017, we have a fundraising goal of $6 million.”
Streit, who served in the IDF and whose mother is Israeli, considers PragerU an essential response to the left.
“As the left takes over the media and Hollywood, it becomes more anti-Israel and you see it even more at the university,” says Streit, who describes herself as Conservative in both her religious denomination and political leaning.
“Back in the day, the fringe made the effort to be anti-Israel and now it’s the trend to be anti-Israel,” she says. “And it’s not even about people being properly educated. Students often do what’s trendy. PragerU is targeted towards students to expose them to another point of view they are not getting on campus so that they can go and make another decision.”
A group of about 500 students comprise PragerForce, in which they make a commitment to share content, Streit says. In addition to aggressive online marketing, Streit says the “secret sauce” of PragerU is that the organization has “clear, factual and easy to understand content combined with a very robust marketing platform.”
Will the organization’s methods produce a lasting impact?
“If people could hear Dennis and see a video again and again, that could help people to articulate with intellectual ammunition,” Streit says. “If you are pro-American, you are pro-Israel. The more people you bring to American values, the more people you bring to Israel.”
Like the future of on-campus debate itself, the legitimacy of this argument remains to be seen.