— by Joshua Berkman
With the arrival of Chanukah, a celebration of Jewish resilience, Jews on campuses across North America have evoked the Maccabee spirit in recent weeks to counter the increasingly loud calls from anti-Israel groups that have demanded boycotts of Israel, divestment from it and sanctions against it (BDS).
More after the jump.
The most recent round of anti-Israel activism, aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish State of Israel, was triggered by Israeli military strikes on terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were more than 100 reported anti-Israel demonstrations on campus in November, attracting thousands of college students nationwide. In response, a cadre of 56 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel, serving 70 campuses, successfully mobilized groups of Jewish students, many of whom were not previously vocal Israel advocates.
Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel are young Israelis in their twenties who, after serving in the army, come to the United States and spend up to three years on college campuses to rally support for Israel, foster discussion with other religious groups on campus, and recruit participants for overseas programs in Israel, such as Birthright Israel and Masa Israel Journey and help Jewish students fend off anti-Israel attacks,. The Israel Fellows program is a partnership between Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and The Jewish Agency.
Now, more than ever, Jewish Agency Israel Fellows play a critical role in maintaining a campus atmosphere that enables students from a range of different backgrounds to openly engage in civil dialogue about Israel, and support the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, namely Israel. .Just as the Vietnam War became the principal cause around which campus radicals rallied in the 1960s, the existence of a sovereign and secure Jewish state — in the Jewish ancestral homeland — has increasingly offended the sensibilities of the campus Left. Leading figures in the Jewish community see the problem as growing.
“Anti-Israel student groups will likely seek to capitalize on the momentum surrounding the Gaza conflict by pushing with renewed intensity their anti-Israel tactics and campaigns,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a recent statement.
This has created an environment where many Jewish students, that have not been educated about Israel, feel social pressure to ‘play down’ their Judaism and Zionism rather than assert their identity proudly as their parents and grandparents did. In fact, prior to the latest round of violence in Gaza, the environment on a number of campuses – had become hostile for many Jewish students- especially those in coastal cities – The past year alone saw more than 700 anti-Israel protests on North American campuses. Some of the higher-profile anti-Israel campus episodes include:
At Columbia University, a Middle Eastern Studies professor told a Jewish student in front of a lecture hall full of students that she couldn’t have ancestral ties to Israel because of her green eyes. Also, a professor asked an Israeli student, “How many Palestinians have you killed?”
At UC-Berkeley, a group of faculty and students launched “Apartheid Week”, a program that has gained traction nationwide and which features students who dress in army fatigues, carry mock assault weapons and stage checkpoints to block and intimidate students on their way to class. In 2010 a female student reported that she was assaulted by an anti-Israel check-point demonstrator who rammed a shopping cart into her.
At Florida Atlantic University last year, local members of the group “Students for Justice in Palestine” posted mock eviction notices on the doors of more than 200 students in a dorm known for its high concentration of Jewish students.
At UC-Davis last month, a group of anti-Israel protesters took over an administration building and held discussion groups that linked Zionists with perpetrators of genocide.
At UC-Irvine — the same campus where Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. was aggressively and relentlessly taunted during a lecture — the Student Senate unanimously passed a BDS resolution Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was aggressively and relentlessly taunted during a lecture.
From their time on campus, many Israel Fellows have found that Jewish students are uncomfortable planning and participating in visible, pro-Israel rallies and instead choose to engage in more substantive forms of activism. Last year, when the University of Pennsylvania hosted a conference for the national BDS movement, Jewish students took the opportunity to dramatically increase and deepen the pro-Israel campus coalition. Tactics involved thousands of students and a semester of programs and activities that increased pro-Israel sentiment on campus through deep and sophisticated conversations. At the University of Michigan, students lobbied influential professors to vocally support Israel and cosponsored an event to showcase Artists for Israel. At Baruch College, a young woman responded to what was “a battle of fliers” on campus by organizing a discussion forum that was cosponsored by Muslim student groups.
“The Israel Fellows, other Hillel staff and student leadership took the opportunity to model a different kind of activism – one that dramatically helps Jews and non-Jews to help better understand Israel and communicate positive messages,” said Abi Dauber Sterne Hillel’s vice president for global Jewish experience.
According to Ronen Weiss, the Jewish Agency’s National emissary to Hillel, these types of nuanced pro-Israel activities can yield long-term value and are taken seriously by the community at large. That said, as the pressure against Israel’s legitimacy mounts, Weiss sees an urgent need for more Israel Fellows on more college campuses to stem the tide.
“It is important that Jewish students show public solidarity, Israel Fellows are focused on the outcomes of connecting students with a deep and lasting relationship with the people, land and state of Israel, rather than on publicity stunts,” Weiss said. “We need to empower even more students nationwide to hold meaningful dialogues about Israel in dorms and cafeterias, and encourage pro-Israel representation in student governments and among campus speakers.”
Ultimately, what is at stake is securing the Jewish future and a strong Israel. As the battle for Israel’s legitimacy heats up on college campuses, Israel Fellows are standing at the ready.