A Jewish college student writes home to her brother and sister, explaining what they have to look forward to—and what they need to be prepared for.
Jacob and Carly, you are both at major turning points in your life.
Jacob, you’re looking at colleges now. Every time I call home you have a new top choice. You are taking ACTs and Subject Tests, and you’re doing brilliantly, better than I did no doubt.
Carly, you just graduated from middle school. Dad emailed me pictures of you receiving your diploma. You looked beautiful in white. Mom says you haven’t worn anything but my old high school shirts since you were accepted in May. I might be a bit biased, but I think it’s one of the best schools in the area. I know you’re excited, but if it’s tougher than you expected, academically and socially, that’s natural. Just give it time.
Unfortunately, at your current schools, you are no strangers to anti-Semitism. Carly, you’ll recall that time a classmate printed out a picture of those fake glasses with the wax nose attached and told you that it looked just like you. And Jacob, there was that time a few kids at your rival school posted a picture on Snapchat showing themselves playing “Alcoholocaust,” an unspeakably despicable version of Nazis vs. Jews beer pong. I can’t say that this won’t continue at your new schools, and while anti-Semitism isn’t anything new to you two, there’s a new kind that you are about to face: anti-Zionism.
Coming from a family that has always emphasized strong pro-Israel activism, it might be hard to believe that some people don’t think the same way you do. You’ll learn quickly that not everyone sees Israel in the same light as you, nor will everyone accept you for your beliefs. Starting at a new school is tough enough on its own, but as pro-Israel Jews, you will have an added challenge. Many people in your position cease to stand up for their beliefs. You can’t. You need to be prepared, vigilant, and active.
I paid a lot of attention to the Israel-related climate on campus when I was looking at colleges. I looked into whether or not a school had a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, if it sponsored study abroad programs in Israel, and if it had a “fill-in-the-mascot for Israel” club. I had heard stories. I knew what happened to pro-Israel Jews on some campuses. Mock checkpoints, Israeli Apartheid Weeks, and die-ins have all become popular vehicles for spreading students’ hateful sentiments against Jews, Zionists, and Israel, masquerading behind the facade of a legitimate political protest. You might be used to big-nosed Jew jokes and taunts about spare change, but the theatrics of the anti-Israel movement on American college campuses are unparalleled anywhere else.
At lots of schools, students, especially Jews, who support Israel are silenced. One night at NYU in 2014, SJP slipped mock eviction notices under the doors of over 2,000 student dorm rooms in the only building with an elevator that could be used on Shabbat. They claimed this “did not target Jewish students,” but merely sought to “draw attention to the reality Palestinians face daily.” In actuality, all it did was target and terrify students. A resident of the dorm, in an interview with the Times of Israel, commented, “Being very straightforward, this made me feel targeted and unsafe in my own dorm room and I know others feel exactly the same.”
At Cornell, students were filmed hurling insults and spitting at pro-Israel students during a mock checkpoint demonstration, screaming “Fuck you, Zionist scums!” I thought that was the kind of language used exclusively by anonymous internet Nazis. Turns out it’s a common expression on some campuses. At UC Berkley, students are accustomed to apartheid walls and mock checkpoints with SJP protestors shouting damning lies about the Israeli government while dressed as IDF soldiers. They harass and intimidate passersby, and cause massive disruption in heavily-trafficked locations on campus. I have close friends in the IDF. I’m speechless when they’re portrayed this way.
When he spoke at UC Irvine in February 2010, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was shouted down by students screaming things like “propaganda murder is not an expression of free speech!” or “Israel is guilty of a hundred and one war crimes!” Students who wanted to hear his remarks were unable to. Shouting down pro-Israel speakers is a hallmark of SJP and its allies. At the University of Minnesota, one student who attended a disrupted lecture by a prominent Israeli academic wrote an article about her experience. Afterward, members of the Minnesota BDS movement sent her harassing messages online. She stood strong and continues to speak out, but not everyone in her situation is able to feel safe.
Following a divestment vote at the University of Michigan, many students testified that they had received threatening messages from pro-BDS students calling them “kikes” and “dirty Jews,” even threatening to kill them. They missed class for a week because they were too afraid to leave their dorm rooms. We have Jewish family friends at Michigan; can you imagine hearing about this from them?
This is just a taste of what campus life is like for pro-Israel Jews at certain institutions. You’ll notice that not a single tactic used by the anti-Israel groups mentioned above supports dialogue. Those who promote such tactics are not interested in peaceful solutions, they only seek to make you abandon your beliefs and intimidate you out of promoting them.
Unfortunately, they have had a lot of success. One student commented in an interview with the Forward that “During [Israel Apartheid] week, it is easy to feel ashamed of one’s beliefs or to be angered by…students’ unwillingness to engage in peaceful debate.” Another asked, “Did my vocal Israel activism make me less of a human?”
Students with the same background as you and I, educated Jews who have proudly supported Israel all their life, are made to be afraid. They cease to speak out against injustice, feeling an immediate threat to their personal safety on campus. They stop wearing their Stars of David and kippot; they stop talking about their cousins who live in Israel; they stop being proud of their connection to the Jewish state. Can you imagine being ashamed to tell your friends that you’re spending spring break in Jerusalem, or having to hide the fact that your mid-semester trip to Washington is for the AIPAC Policy Conference? You should never feel like you have to hide such a crucial piece of your identity.
Jacob, you don’t know what school you’ll attend, so there’s a chance that you won’t have to deal with this. You might be lucky and fall in love with a school free from frequent bouts of anti-Zionism. I hope this is the case. I hope I never have to receive a terrified text from you about the most recent case of violence or hatred on your campus. I don’t think I could stop myself from worrying, let alone comfort Mom and Dad, if you were threatened for your Zionism.
But even at a school more welcoming to pro-Israel students, you never know. I take comfort in believing that it could never happen on my campus; that my institution, where 30 percent of the student population is Jewish, would never allow an Israel Apartheid week to take place; that my student government would never pass a divestment resolution. The sad truth is that there are no guarantees. In an interview in the documentary Crossing the Line 2, Justin Hayet, a Binghamton University student, commented,
I would have never said a year ago that this would happen on my campus. Thirty-something percent Jews, proud Jews, Zionists! Such a strong Jewish and pro-Israel community, this would never happen. It happened. People were being verbally, maliciously attacked for saying, “I believe in the right to a State of Israel.”
You may choose to attend a school that isn’t notorious for anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incidents, but you are not absolved from the need to be prepared. At schools where students are unaccustomed to rampant anti-Zionism, it is necessary to maintain what I call an “okay for now” mentality, and be ready to act if something should happen on your campus.
I’m a member of a group called Emergency Mobilization, created to preemptively combat any potential anti-Israel activity on our campus. If there were a divestment resolution on our student government’s agenda, we would all be immediately alerted so we could campaign against it. If SJP were to hold a protest, we’d be there to counter it. This is a perfect example of the mentality that we, as Zionist Jews on campus, need to have: Knowledge is power, and timely vigilance is the key. You just never know.
Carly, I’m proud to say that my, now your, high school is quite politically active. Students carry debates from the classroom out into the hallways and cafeteria. The opportunity to have real, meaningful conversations with my peers was one of the things I loved most about it. I enjoyed learning from my friends, often more so than from my teachers. We had student-led clubs for all sorts of political issues, and I always felt comfortable expressing my opinions at meetings, even proffering theories I wasn’t sure I agreed with. The atmosphere was academic and we pushed each other to grow. But I have to be honest, the Israel climate there isn’t ideal.
Though you likely won’t see “apartheid walls” or mock checkpoints, you’ll need to look out for a few things. First and foremost, I would urge you to pay attention to your teachers and the information they present as fact. During my senior year, a teacher of mine was giving a presentation about international crises in which he mentioned Hezbollah, but refused to call it a terrorist organization. Never mind the rockets they’ve fired, the innocent lives they’ve ended, and the paralyzing fear they’ve created. It didn’t sit right, and I called him out on it immediately. Your teachers aren’t always right. Disagree when they are wrong, loudly and intelligently.
I would also advise you to pay attention to the student newspaper. At the end of my senior year, they printed an article about Israel’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in which the author questioned Israel’s regard for human life. She also defended Hamas, claiming they were not using children as human shields; it only looked like they were because Israel “confines these two million people to this small area so there is nowhere to flee to.” The rest of the article was riddled with similar smears. I tried to write a counter-article, but the school administration wouldn’t allow it, arguing that I, as an upperclassman, was victimizing the author, who was an underclassman. But at least I’d tried to speak up. My efforts were talked about and started an intellectual debate amongst my peers. My vigilance meant that even though I couldn’t write my thoughts on paper, I was still able to make sure that bright minds knew the truth.
Both of you: be aware, always. Monitor the conversations happening on campus about Israel and arm yourself with the facts. Remember that the truth is on our side. Don’t question your core values or doubt yourself when vehement anti-Zionists get theatrical with their activism. Just because someone screams their opinion doesn’t mean they’re right, so try not to be intimidated out of your beliefs.
Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s going to have to be okay; but you can shape and influence the conversation if you get involved, and you can certainly ensure that your campus remains a safe place for Zionist and Jewish students. Never be idle when anti-Semitism manifests itself, especially in political conversations.
This is a lot to think about, and it won’t be easy on top of the increased workload and social challenges of adjusting to a new school. But I know you both can rise to the occasion.
Banner Photo: Joseph Shemuel / flickr