Natan Sharansky, Israel's minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, received much attention for his views on the woeful lack of pro-Israel activity among Jews on U.S. campuses. Part of the problem is that most Jewish organizations on campus frame the issue in terms of students being "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel." This is a mistake.
The terminology may represent important and justified causes, but it contributes to the perception, shared by Sharansky, that 90 percent of Jewish students are not involved in anything related to Israel.
So we need to change the paradigm for Israel and Zionist education on campus. The problem isn't that students lack the facts, it's that they don't care about them in the first place. Framing the discussion in terms of pro- or anti-Israel is too politically charged for most students, who lack the confidence to be part of the political debate.
The university environment encourages critical thinking skills. Students are taught to question and not to accept everything they hear or see at face value. Most students do not want to commit to an unconditional backing of Israel's policies, either from a lack of confidence regarding the facts or a lack of approval with many of the actual policies.
Students often feel that being pro-Israel entails total and steadfast support of the Israeli government's policies. Such unquestioning behavior is antithetical to the academic environment in which they are spending four of the most influential years of their lives.
If our goal is to involve more Jewish students, then we must move beyond the fan club mentality of rooting for Israel from the sidelines and begin focusing students on Israel as team players. A team player mentality is one that calls for responsibility and partnership rather then unconditional support.
While hasbara, public relations, is valuable in the sense of offering simple, clear answers, it does not satisfy those students who want deeper responses to tough, complex questions.
To engage more students, we need to broaden the discourse. Before students can be expected to defend Israel, they must have identification with and care for the place and its people. So the essence of the Zionist imperative today is to provide meaning for Jews in the diaspora and connect them, make them partners and players in Israel's future.
We want the students to become Jewish leaders, not cheerleaders. Israel should be presented as a challenge for the Jewish students, so uniformity should not be our guiding principle. Internal debate and discussion should be encouraged. We need to determine when we can be critical and when we should have a united front.
Non-political avenues, such as Israel's environment and women's rights, must be presented to educate about Israel, and to connect to the interests and issues that unaffiliated Jewish students already care about. Students who already are active should be engaged in tackling the challenges Israel faces on these topics. We should expand the teaching of Hebrew and find ways to integrate Israeli students in many kinds of activities. And most important, travel to Israel in all its forms should be promoted wholeheartedly, with aliyah presented as a viable option.
The common ground for Jewish students on the college campus should be understanding the importance of Israel to the Jewish people's future. The Palestinian question should be dealt with only within the Zionist context and not separately.
These problems on campus are not of semantics. On the contrary, they have pragmatic ramifications in the methods through which Israel programming is implemented.
For example, when planning a campus tour for an Israeli women's rights advocate, it is best to compare Israel's open society to the repressive nature of neighboring Arab states. If the speaker was addressing a Jewish audience, she could probe more deeply the issue of women in the army, the judicial status of marriage and women's activism in Israel.
These events would be different because they cater to different (but not mutually exclusive) goals. The first is to score points in the PR war against the Palestinians, the second is to cultivate a meaningful personal connection to Israel.
It's not as if one of these approaches, or goals, is better than the other. The issue is that now, virtually all Israel-oriented activity on campus centers on the pro and anti context of the hasbara approach.
It is unfortunate for us that the term "Zionism" has been given all the wrong connotations. More important, though, is to implement a comprehensive Zionist educational agenda on campus.
If getting more students involved with Israel is what we are concerned with, we should open our eyes and understand that the hasbara solution that we've been offering helps a small percentage of our students counter those fighting the Palestinian cause, but at the expense of alienating many others.
Shachar Yanai is the director and shaliach for USD/Hagshama, the student arm of the World Zionist Organization in North America.
Special To The Jewish Week