6 Jewish Students Reveal How Israel Debate Colors Campus Life
When the Forward put out a call for students to tell us about a college experience that had shaped their Jewish identity in some way — good, bad or otherwise — we expected to receive a diversity of responses. And in a way, we did: Students wrote about moments in Mumbai and Johannesburg and Ithaca, and their political views spanned the gamut from left to right. But every student interpreted the question as being about Israel and the BDS movement. That in itself is telling. The Israel debate has reached a fever pitch on campus, and whatever view you take of it, its ramifications are now impossible to ignore.
Mike Sosnick, Cornell University
Throughout my time as a college student, the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had with regard to my Jewish identity happened in a Mumbai restaurant.
I had gone on a group travel experience to India. During our stay there, I embraced the trip’s goal of connecting young American and Indian Jews. The Indian people I met were endlessly open and kind. Judaism made bridging the cultural gap easy; shared elements of our identity sparked genuine friendship and bonds. Although Judaism played a radically different role in every participant’s life, it was beautiful to see a single shared heritage connecting diverse people with widely varied life experiences.
After days of immersion in this inspirational spirit, I found myself eating a meal at a restaurant, this time surrounded only by my American Jewish peers. The conversation gradually shifted to our relationship with Israel.
“Oh, you’ve never been to Israel before?” one student asked me.
“No,” I said.
“Don’t you feel threatened by pro-Palestinian students on campus?”
“Don’t you feel unwelcome?”
“No, but I do now.”
As my peers recounted their run-ins with campus BDS activists and with professors who treated them unfairly out of perceived anti-Semitism, I sat in near silence. The questions quickly turned into thinly veiled judgments. I was made to feel less Jewish than they are because I didn’t identify with social Judaism on campus, because I had no connection with Israel and because I felt able to separate pro-Palestinian activism from anti-Semitism.
I’ve been exposed to tons of anti-Israel rhetoric on campus. But I’m not Israeli. I’m American. And at least on my campus, the pro-Palestinian movement rarely devolves into bigotry. (I recognize that students at other colleges aren’t this lucky.) So no, I do not feel uncomfortable or threatened as an American Jew at college. But I do feel uncomfortable when the community that was meant to make me feel safe — the Jewish community — devalues my identity because it’s not parallel to theirs. And it took a demeaning conversation halfway around the world for me to be able to fully articulate this.
Gabriella Blumberg, University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg
Being a Jewish Zionist on campus is particularly interesting and challenging here in South Africa. The horrific history of apartheid has made students acutely aware of human rights violations. The BDS movement has abused this sentiment and created myths about Israel, using photographs of checkpoints and refugees to create the view that Israel is an apartheid state.
The problem here is ignorance; many students are inducted into this belief without doing further research or attempting to understand the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict is simplified into a struggle between religions and races, with Zionism being equated with racism. One is deemed a Zionist just because one is Jewish, and many believe that one cannot be a Zionist without being a Jew. Many also do not know where Israel is on a map.
But for me, it has been an honor and privilege to be involved in the South African Union of Jewish Students, which seeks to represent all Jewish students, regardless of sect, religious beliefs or practices. Through diverse initiatives — including fun social events, community outreach programs and shiurim, Torah lessons, during lunch breaks — SAUJS aims to accommodate all.
During Israeli Apartheid Week, SAUJS has representatives on campuses of the main South African universities to dispel myths and to open up constructive dialogue about how people can get involved in creating solutions. Members of StandWithUs are often flown into South Africa to share their stories of living in Israel so that students can gain a better understanding of the complexities of the conflict. During this week, it is easy to feel ashamed of one’s beliefs or to be angered by the propaganda posters used by BDS supporters and by students’ unwillingness to engage in peaceful debate. However, it is important to be proud of one’s beliefs and to be open to engagement with fellow students. I hope for an attitude of productive conversation and information.
Leora Eisenberg, University of Minnesota
I often feel that I should write the Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal a thank-you note for coming to the University of Minnesota, making national Jewish news and inadvertently launching my activism career.
Last November, Halbertal gave a lecture on the ethics of asymmetrical warfare that was so protested (he was shouted down for half an hour) that I was invited to speak about it on the radio and to write about it for the Orthodox Union. College students from all over reached out to me, and ones at the University of Minnesota urged me to let them know if I ever felt afraid again.
As my articles and interviews spread, members of the Minnesota BDS movement messaged me, asking me to not “spread lies” about their organization and to realize that “you and I both know very well there would have been no danger to you had you gone into the lecture.” They then said that “we are all human; please act like one.” Once I had said publicly that I was afraid of their protests, I was suddenly no longer a human.
This made me think: Did my vocal Israel activism make me less of a human? Had I turned into a hasbara machine, intent on defending Israel and on exposing the ills of the BDS movement without ever realizing that the movement may have had a point?
I had experienced a crushing fear. I was scared to go to a lecture; I told people why, and then resolved never to be silent about Israel again. I had felt emotion — painful and moving — and that was something only a human could do. My experience had been a catalyst for my activist persona. I was not a machine; I was a nuanced advocate who had, on many occasions, tried to see the “other side” and feel its frustration, all in the hope of becoming a better advocate.
My hours of reading Edward Said and Ali Abunimah had taught me why they said what they did. But had the “other side” ever read Michael Oren or Caroline Glick through the same empathic lens? My empathy lay in trying to understand people, but when I was afraid of their mindset and said so, I had suddenly become the lesser being.
I was left with the choice of either being the hasbara machine that many Jews would have been pleased to see or being the Israel activist who read material on both sides, who felt scared when the BDS supporters started screaming at her and who, above all, was human. And I chose the latter.
Ben Berman, Clark University
During my transition from high school to college, I became very disillusioned the more I learned about the past and current crimes of the State of Israel against the Palestinians and Bedouins.
The narratives of the centuries-long history of anti-Semitism and of the larger conflicts between Israel and several other Middle Eastern states had long kept Israel’s own violations of basic human and Jewish values hidden from me. As I educated myself more about the Zionist project’s ongoing confiscation of Palestinian Arabs’ homes, land and resources, I concluded that even if many early Zionists never intended to commit such structural oppression, Jews today are obligated to stand against injustice — especially when it’s being committed by some of our own.
I became a leader of Clark University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the beginning of my sophomore year. As a part of the Palestinian solidarity movement, I have advocated, along with people of all faiths or none, for nonviolent resistance against Israel’s persecution of Palestinians, and against America’s military aid and diplomatic support for such persecution.
At the same time, I have also strengthened my Jewish identity in response to my growing awareness about real contemporary anti-Semitism. While, fortunately, I never encountered any of this growing up, I have become friends with other Jews at Clark (some of them also anti-Zionist) who have struggled against anti-Semitism.
I think it is extremely disrespectful to conflate being against the settler-colonial project of Zionism, as so many Jews have been over the decades, with actual anti-Semitism. In the Torah, the name “Israel” refers to Jacob’s struggle. Through my experiences at Clark, I have learned that as the Children of Israel, we are meant to struggle against injustice, not to cause others to struggle. To repair the world, not to destroy another people’s world.
Rose Asaf, New York University
Like any freshman in college, I began this academic year at New York University by embarking on trial-and-error test runs with over 20 on-campus clubs. After my extracurricular escapade was complete, two groups had captured my attention: Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Learning Fellowship. Would it be hypocritical to involve myself in both of these ostensibly conflicting organizations?
I identify as an American-Israeli woman, but my identity is more than a mere hyphenation. Israel and my Jewish identity were once conjoined, and I never thought to question my unconditional support for Israel — until I noticed that the people who shared my pro-Israel stance were those whose political philosophies stand in stark contrast to my own. Once I began to scrutinize my Israel views, I unintentionally prompted a lifelong grappling with my identity.
I realized that, because I was raised as an American-Israeli Jew in a middle-class suburb, my perspective on Israeli politics was more myopic than I would have liked to believe. As I began to immerse myself in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the truth dawned on me: Israel was not the land of milk and honey that I’d believed it to be. I felt that I had to decide between abandoning my people or following my morals. But over time, and after untold hours of research, I realized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict couldn’t be understood through the dichotomies I had been taught.
I believe that Jewish people, myself included, are responsible for robustly opposing the oppression we know far too well. Censuring the Israeli government does not mean you are a bad Jew, nor does it mean you are anti-Israel; it means that you care. I am a critic of Israel but remain a proud Jew.
And so, at NYU, I joined Students for Justice in Palestine while simultaneously participating in the Jewish Learning Fellowship. This was not hypocrisy. By participating in both groups, I quickly learned that my generation of Jews and activists rejects the conflation of Judaism and Zionism and invites varying ideologies, religions and identities into the discourse.
Rebekah Molasky, Indiana University
I consider myself extremely fortunate to attend Indiana University, a school that allows me not only to be comfortable as a Jewish student, but also to thrive. My defining moment as a Jewish student on campus came last semester, when my club, Students Supporting Israel, passed a resolution through our student government to condemn anti-Semitism. At a time when anti-Semitism is increasing on college campuses all over the world, my campus took a stand against it.
The reason that I wrote the resolution was to give back to the on-campus Jewish community that has given me so much. Two years ago, I transferred here from Clemson University, in South Carolina. As you can imagine, being a transfer student is not easy. The Jewish community here welcomed me with open arms and immediately made me feel at home. The resolution that was passed strengthens our university’s ties to the Jewish community and ensures that we will continue to be able to practice our religion without discrimination.
Passing this resolution made me want to be even more involved with the Jewish community on campus. It strengthened my relationship with our Hillel rabbi and allowed me to make new friends at our AISH house. I now meet weekly with the AISH rebbetzin, enabling me to further explore my Jewish identity. I am proud to be a student at Indiana University and even more proud to be a Jewish student on this campus.