Those Who Came Before You

The constant turnover of students on college campuses contributes to the always-interesting, always-vibrant and always-dynamic reality of the university setting. Sometimes, however, it can be frustrating to watch similar sequences of events unfold over and over again.

Carl Schrag.

The constant turnover of students on college campuses contributes to the always-interesting, always-vibrant and always-dynamic reality of the university setting. Sometimes, however, it can be frustrating to watch similar sequences of events unfold over and over again.

We’ve all heard the wise words, attributed to many and appropriated by many others: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” but I think the late author Kurt Vonnegut got it right when he wrote, “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.” That’s sure how it looks on campus.

Sometimes, you want to shake someone and ask why they can’t learn from history, but part of the student experience is the ability to explore and experiment on your own, to forge your own path and to create your own world.

All of that is well and good, but still — and I write this knowing full well that I risk sounding like a curmudgeon — wouldn’t it be nice if today’s students were more open to learning from those who walked the same halls before them?

When the student government at the University of California, Irvine, voted unanimously to support a divestment resolution last month (as reported on by ICB‘s Maya Kraidman and Zev Hurwitz), I thought back to a similar occurrence a number of years ago. The school wasn’t on the West Coast; it was in the Midwest. The issue wasn’t divestment; it was a student government-sponsored screening of a strident, incendiary film purporting to share “the truth” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Pro-Israel students at the school were taken by surprise when they started to see publicity for the government-sanctioned screening, and they felt disenfranchised, blindsided and unsure of how to proceed. While they ultimately did come up with a strategy to deal with the reality, they needed to take a fundamental look at what they were doing, and how they were doing it. It had been years since pro-Israel students had been involved in student government, and none of the Israel leadership on campus had forged relationships with anyone in elected SGA positions.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s worthy of careful consideration by supporters of Israel on all campuses (even those who are hesitant to learn from those who came before them): No two campuses are identical, but they do share certain commonalities.

All campuses are complex environments comprising a multitude of overlapping, intersecting communities, organizations and groups. With very few exceptions, most campuses don’t have more than a small minority of students with strong ties to Israel, so pro-Israel efforts must target the broadest possible number of people. This cannot be done by preaching to the choir; it requires getting out in the community and forging strong ties with many groups and in many settings.

Maybe the board members of the Israel group don’t want to run for student government posts — or maybe they can’t get enough votes to win — but that need not prevent them from investing time and attention in the people who are part of the governing bodies. Meet them. Talk to them. Take them out for coffee. Attend their events and invite them to yours. Develop warm relationships and a mutual sense of understanding.

There are no guarantees in life, but it does seem likely that if you have a strong relationship with someone in student government, you’ll get a heads-up if a divestment bill gets foisted onto the agenda with little or no warning. Friends look out for friends, but you need to take the first steps.

The tendency to go looking for allies in a moment of need is as natural as it is ineffective. Campus Israel activists will enjoy greater success if they reach out to potential partners, friends and allies when they don’t need any favors; and those people may be inclined to help you someday down the road.

Like the Midwestern film screening, the California divestment vote is unlikely to have any long-lasting repercussions on campus or beyond. Nobody really expects anyone with authority over investment decisions to divest from companies that do business with the country that brings the world a steady stream of must-have technological advances. Nevertheless, the campus environment will benefit from proactive consideration by Israel group leaders. The lesson should be clear: Reach out today, when you don’t need anything specific. Make your case. Build relationships. Take interest in what goes on beyond your own inner circle. This is the best way to ensure that when you need allies, they will be there for you.

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, today’s students will be the voice of experience, wondering why those who come after them won’t listen. In the meantime, feel free to read Vonnegut, and to learn through trial and error, but don’t knock the lessons that can be learned from those who came before you.