Clueless on Campus: Candid Advice for Jewish Organizations

IJCR Editor’s Note: The Institute for Jewish & Community Research is committed to confronting the challenges facing Jewish students on campus. Perhaps the most valuable source of information toward improvement is the students themselves. The Quad had the opportunity to debrief with Jessica Felber, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Ms. Felber was the President of Tikvah: Students for Israel, a Hasbara Fellow and an Emerson Fellow. She hosted events sponsored by all the organizations mentioned in this article and attended conferences organized by the World Zionist Organization, The David Project, and Hillel. Ms. Felber was also the plaintiff in a legal case against UC Berkeley, confronting administrative indifference to anti-Semitism. Below, she offers candid advice for Jewish organizations on campus.

It has been more than a decade since the campus climate began deteriorating for Jewish students. Over the years, a myriad of Jewish organizations have devoted time and resources in a well-meaning, but too often ad-hoc effort to restore honesty, civility and tolerance to the campus. While these organizations deserve praise for their work, they are also in need of some guidance. Progress has been and continues to be made but I believe we can do better.

During my time at UC Berkeley, I was deeply involved in confronting hostility against Israel and Jews on campus. I have been the prototypical end user of all the efforts being made on college campuses by Jewish organizations. I have seen how Jewish communal involvement on campus can be incredibly helpful and I have seen how it can be ineffectual or worse, a hindrance. Small changes to how the campus is approached and how Jewish organizations perceive their role vis-à-vis students can, I believe, significantly increase the effectiveness of their efforts. The following observations, critiques and recommendations are intended to inject a bit of honest constructive criticism and hopefully, to help increase the impact the Jewish community is having on campuses.

Pro-Israel advocacy versus anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incidents
There is a difference between proactive programming and responding to overt bias, discrimination and hostility. Students are ill equipped to deal with hostility directed at them and want help. While they may want Jewish organizations in the background at times, Jewish students need to feel the tangible support of organizations standing behind them when faced with events or incidents that offend, exclude or harm Jewish students. However, many students believe reporting campus anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity to Jewish organizations is ineffectual because the gears simply move too slowly. There is no rapid response in place when we really need it. Students want organizational representatives to respond forcefully when negative incidents take place and to be on campus helping coordinate joint responses. This is where organizations can take a public stand on behalf of students.

Organizations need to set their egos aside at times
In contrast, some organizational work would be more effective if done quietly and in the background. Featuring organizational logos on events and directly associating with particular organizations can be detrimental for a student group. Explicit organizational sponsorship sends the message that the event and the student group itself is not student run, not organic. Rather, logos make it appear, unfairly or not, that a student group is a façade for multi-million dollar organizations. This is a particularly sticky point because the allusion of wealthy backers feeds into the conception that Jewish money and lobbyists are trying to control the campus conversation, marginalizing the voice of the student group rather than amplifying it. Student groups are appealing because they are regarded as grassroots and youth-led. In general, organizations need to let go of some ego and support students without getting explicit credit for it.

Campus initiatives should encourage organic ideas from students on the ground
Jewish students are bombarded with funding opportunities to engage in pre-formed activities from a dozen different organizations. There is little opportunity to be creative and scant motivation to develop programming that comes from students themselves. Students need to be encouraged and empowered to create their own programming that they think will be most effective for their unique student group on their particular campus. When students are trusted to plan and execute every aspect of their event, they feel more responsible for its success than when following a Jewish professional’s instructions. Jewish organizations should attempt to limit their role to fiscal oversight, guidance, information on past successes and failures and offer other forms of expertise without pushing so many complete programs which stifle student creativity and motivation.

Student groups need the freedom to be just that, student groups
Too often, students groups come under the wing of an organization and become more or less a branch of that organization. Students need to be guided in their advocacy work, not directed. While support from organizations is entirely necessary, student groups are significantly more impactful when they control their own decision-making, when they have full agency over the group. The campus is a rapidly changing environment and student led groups are best equipped to respond to these changes. Related to this point, Jewish students need money without strings attached. Students know their campus best and need the freedom to create events that are tailored to that environment. This requires money that is not tied to any specific event or program.

Organizations should stop competing for students on campus
To students, Jewish organizations are largely similar and competition for students can be a waste of valuable resources. Organizations produce the same pamphlets, programming, and conferences and a small number of students take advantage of all of them. Organizations need to identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and begin to work together, broadening the scale of work and scope of appeal through collaboration. Setting up organization fairs for students to learn about each organization does not count as collaboration.

Fellowships and internships should improve outreach to attract new students and avoid duplicative efforts
There needs to be much more communication between organizations about which students are already involved. A handful of students are given positions with a number of different organizations. While this is valuable for building resumes, it limits the overall effectiveness of student leadership programs. Imagine the work that could be accomplished on campus if more than one or two students held the positions of Hasbara Fellow, Grinspoon Intern, Masa Intern, Emerson Fellow, WZO Intern, and CAMERA Fellow.

Jewish students do not need more free conferences across the country
Students who attend one of these conferences tend to attend all of them and they are also the students who need them the least. Student conferences put on by Jewish organizations are for the most part a waste of time and money. Rarely is anything put into action and students often just use them as an excuse to get a free trip, a free hotel stay, and time to hang out with their friends from across the country. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but should not be confused as effective programming to combat anti-Semitism on campus. Organizations should collaborate to hold one (and only one) large conference each year for student Israel advocates to bring them together in one place without expending more money and resources than necessary.

This list is not exhaustive, but it covers some of the more fundamental issues that I believe limit the overall impact on campus. While I am incredibly thankful that the Jewish community was there for me during my time on campus, the truth is that Jewish organizations can be clueless when it comes to the campus. There are new young Jewish students entering universities across the country this Fall and they deserve the best support possible because they face an unfair reality. The problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on campus will, unfortunately, not be solved in the near future. Progress is being made but a long road lies ahead. We cannot afford to be complacent and should always be looking to improve. I feel it is my responsibility, one I believe is shared by the Jewish community at large, to constantly push for more and better. The problem is constantly evolving, and so should our responses.