(JTA) — When Israel Apartheid Week came to Columbia University in early March, there was potential for great agitation at the heavily Jewish campus.
The local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the nation’s leading campus proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, set up a mock “Israeli apartheid wall” in front of the steps leading up to the iconic Low Library. Across the way, a handful of students affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace manned a table promoting boycotts of the Jewish state.
A few pro-Israel counter-protesters mounted a 12-foot-tall inflatable Pinocchio doll one day that week to call out what they said were lies being propagated by anti-Israel students. But the doll had not explicitly been permitted by Columbia’s student government, and after an hour or so the students were told to take it down.
“We switched the conversation to talking about the Pinocchio,” said Rudy Rochman, the Columbia junior who is president of the local chapter of Students Supporting Israel, which organized the Pinocchio display. “That was really the goal of putting it up. We wanted our messaging to be louder than theirs and to destroy their message.”
For the most part, however, pro-Israel students at the Ivy League school seemed to be laying low, and the week passed largely uneventfully. The anti-Israel groups hosted lectures, screened films and staged dance performances, while Columbia’s largest pro-Israel student group, Aryeh, hosted a lecture by anti-divestment law professor Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University that attracted about 80 people. The pro-Palestinian groups drew their loyalists, the pro-Israel students spoke to their constituents and the vast majority of Columbia students paid little attention to either.
That, say many pro-Israel activists on campus, is what success looks like when it comes to Israel Apartheid Week. As the annual event has become a fixture on college campuses, many pro-Israel activists say their most successful strategy is simply to ignore it.
“Being out there devolves this into color war; it makes both sides look crazy,” said Daniella Greenbaum, a Barnard junior and president of Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel. “We want to have elevated discourse on Israel. That’s why we’re not out there this year.”
Dozens of university campuses around the world now mark Israel Apartheid Week. Usually scheduled anytime from late February through early April, the weeklong series of student-organized events is meant to highlight alleged Israeli misdeeds and promote the BDS campaign. Anti-Israel speakers deliver lectures, students mount public demonstrations and guest columnists publish pro-BDS Op-Eds in campus newspapers.
At some campuses, the events prompt open conflict between anti- and pro-Israel students, and students on both sides have complained of being harassed.
“Our biggest fear and concern is that you have so much conflict that Jewish students don’t want to do anything Jewish because this becomes a conflict space,” said one Northeast Hillel director, who asked that his university not be named so as not to fuel anti-Israel agitation on campus. “Most college students are conflict averse. College is such a fun place. When you make a space a conflict space, our fear is that people won’t want to come in.”
The Hillel director says one of his main strategies to avoid being drawn into the conflict with the pro-Palestinian groups is to ignore them. Instead, he focuses on staging positive Israel events.
“It’s kind of a big nothing,” he said of Israel Apartheid Week.
At Columbia, Aryeh polled about 200 students a couple of years ago and found that Israel was very low on the list of issues that interested them. That’s why the group was against the decision by Students Supporting Israel to mount a counterdemonstration opposite the mock apartheid wall, Greenbaum said.
“We have found the days we’re not there people either don’t stop by the wall or don’t notice,” Greenbaum told JTA. “It’s best to avoid calling attention to the whole thing.”
At some campuses, conflict has become unavoidable, some Jewish students say. At the City University of New York, Jewish students at four campuses — Brooklyn College, Hunter College, the College of Staten Island and John Jay College — have complained of being harassed, slurred and silenced by hostile pro-Palestinian students.
On Feb. 16, students at Brooklyn College disrupted a faculty meeting to demand that “Zionists” leave campus and called one professor a “Zionist pig.”
Last week, at a panel discussion at Hunter held as part of Israel Apartheid Week and International Women’s Day, Students for Justice in Palestine student leader Nerdeen Kiswani accused Israel of using “mass rapes of Palestinian women” as part of a campaign to “perpetrate genocide” on the Palestinian people.
“Israel is a state that is built on murder and mass rape of Palestinian women,” said Kiswani, who also has called for an intifada, or Palestinian uprising, against Israel.
The panel was moderated Saadia Toor, an associate professor of sociology at CUNY. The accusation went unanswered and Kiswani was applauded for her remarks. About 65 people were present for the event.
On Feb. 24, the Zionist Organization of America sent CUNY Chancellor James Milliken a long letter detailing Jewish students’ complaints of anti-Semitism and warning that they violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires that federally funded universities ensure that Jewish students and others suffer no discrimination on campus.
CUNY launched an investigation into the allegations and the university says it is assembling a task force to promote a more respectful environment on campus.
The Anti-Defamation League also has highlighted alleged anti-Semitism at CUNY while applauding Milliken for his response. New York City Council members reportedly are drafting a bill that would require CUNY to report all campus bias incidents to the City Council.
For their part, SJP and pro-BDS activists say they are not anti-Semitic, and that pro-Israel groups are trying to muzzle them through efforts that amount to witch hunts that risk violating their free speech rights.
“Rather than protect students from bigotry,” a Jewish Voice for Peace spokeswoman said of the proposed New York City Council law, it “is intended to silence advocacy for Palestinian human rights, often by falsely conflating criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.”
Though news headlines often make it seem like U.S. college campuses have become the sites of pitched battles between anti-Israel and pro-Israel students, many campus professionals – including at colleges where anti-Semitic incidents allegedly have occurred — say that’s simply not the case.
Nadya Drukker, the executive director of the Hillel chapter at Brooklyn College, said more than 30 student leaders on her campus are focused on organizing pro-Israel events. One of the events that took place this semester was even co-sponsored with the local chapter of the Muslim Students Association, which largely steers clear of the Israel-Arab conflict.
The event, which was also co-sponsored by a Christian student club, was a trivia game called “Getting to know each other’s religion.”