Israel’s recent election was watched with great interest by college students in the US and Israel. While they share many similar concerns as they consider the implications of the results, each group also brings its own perspective to the table.
According to The Jerusalem Post, 66.6 % of eligible voters participated in the poll, the highest turnout in more than a decade. Among these voters were Israeli college students, many of whom have strong opinions about their country’s future leadership.
Elay Oren, a first-year student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), told Israel Campus Beat that young people were more inclined to vote this year because of their focus on social justice.
“Politicians have responded to the high number of young people involved in the tent protests,” said Oren, referring to the 2011 protests in which many Israelis expressed concern about socio-economic issues and the high cost of living.
Although American college students were not eligible to vote in Israel’s election, and thus did not impact the outcome, many were able to participate in mock Israeli elections and events concerning the election that took place on campuses across the country.
Which issues matter most to Israeli and American college students?
Israeli and American college students have different priorities when they rank the most important issues addressed in Israel’s elections.
Professor Jonathan Rynhold, a visiting professor from Bar Ilan University currently teaching Israel studies at the George Washington University, explained that most Israeli college students enter college after completing army service, and they are very attuned to security issues.
First-year Israeli student Nofia Tene, of Bar-Ilan University, concurred. “In Israel, security issues will always be at the top,” she said. However, she added, “For young people in Israel it is important to lower the high price of education and to ensure that graduates can find jobs.” On the other hand, American college students who follow developments in Israel tend to focus on policies related to the Palestinians and the peace process.
“College students focus on the issue of settlements, the peace process and the threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb,” said Lilly Rapson, a senior at the University of Colorado who serves as president of her school’s Friends of Israel group.
Professor Dan Shueftan, director of National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa and visiting Aaron Goldman professor at Georgetown University, said that the opinions of American college students are influenced by the messages they hear from the American media and Israeli leftist parties that present Israeli relations with the Palestinians “as though peace were an option.”
The overwhelming majority of Israeli college students, he said, have lost hope that the peace process will ensue in the near future and thus vote on other issues.
“The 2013 election is different because young people have stopped talking about the peace process and focus more heavily on social and economic topics,” said Meital Sulimany, who is in her last year at BGU.
Professor Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph and Alma Gidenhorn Institute of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, pointed to a cultural difference between the Middle East and America.
“Americans think that there is a solution to every conflict, a happy ending to every movie,” he said. “In the Middle East, that is simply not the general perspective. So, while the peace process is a key factor in shaping the views of most engaged American college students, Israeli students told Israel Campus Beat that they planned to vote on domestic issues related to socioeconomics and equality.
How will the election impact campus Israel advocacy?
In the immediate aftermath of the election, opinions seem split as to whether the results will impact campus advocacy.
“As advocates of Israel on campus, we need to keep in mind our role,” said University of Wisconsin (UW) senior Cory Meyer, who serves as the AIPAC campus liaison at his school. “We are here to strengthen the United States-Israel relationship. The level of advocacy on campus should remain constant.” Meyer emphasized the opportunity for campus advocates to educate students about the new government after the new coalition is formed.
Others argue that the outcome of the 2013 elections may in fact change the general feeling toward Israel on college campuses based on the platforms of the newly elected parties.
Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is unpopular on some campuses, his apparent reelection may cause a decline in Israel advocacy on American campuses, especially among leftist students, said Professor Ilan Peleg, Charles A. Dana professor of government and Law at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Professor Shueftan noted that when the Likud ousted the Labor party from power in 1977, liberal college students reacted.
Sinelnikov of the University of Minnesota agreed that students on the left might be dissatisfied by the prospect of another Netanyahu government, but he emphasized the importance of explaining the right of citizens of a sovereign, democratic nation to choose their leader.
UW’s Meyer concurred. “We must acknowledge, respect and praise Israel for embodying democracy, embracing dissent and granting its people the right to freely elect its representatives,” he said.