From openly anti-Semitic professors to swastika graffiti, the campus can be a hard place for Jews, and is certainly a hard place for Zionist Jews. The hype is true: anti-Zionism is alive and well. But my experiences at Brown University have taught me there is also hope to be found in pro-Israel activism.
My first serious experience with anti-Zionism on Brown’s campus occurred during my first semester, before I had completely outed myself as a Zionist activist. I noticed the lack of conversation on campus around Syria and other Southwest Asian issues. I tried to generate some dialogue, toying with the idea of starting a student group, but the leadership for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and others identified me as a Zionist and discouraged our peers from engaging with me, even on an issue unrelated to Israel.
Following the widely reported and emotionally photographed death of the three-year-old Kurdish child Alan Kurdi, who drowned during summer 2015 while trying to flee Syria, the Syrian refugee issue finally saw some attention in the U.S. I seized the opportunity to start a student group that would address it while there was enough sympathy on campus to do so. My effort initially took the form of an interfaith coalition, which was almost disrupted as SJP appealed to the Muslim Student Association to withdraw support for the organization and block a fundraiser for the White Helmets (the same group that would later rescue the four-year-old Omran Daqneesh, whose picture has become so famous recently, from the rubble). Fortunately, the Muslim Student Association at Brown did not cave to the pressure. Later, SJP and their allies cut my interfaith group out of a campus-wide effort to organize a counter-demonstration to an anti-refugee rally, unwilling to unite around the Syrian refugee issue despite (and because of) my leadership on it.
I am not the only one whose refugee-related work has been curtailed by SJP. Last year, they protested an Amnesty International fundraiser because it was to take place at Ben & Jerry’s, which apparently is connected with a company that produces ice cream in Israel. Syrian refugee children, including Palestinians, will not have coats this winter because members of SJP cares more about optics than the lives and health of the Syrian people.
For SJP, nothing has a higher priority than pushing to obliterate the Jewish State and attach a high personal price to Zionism (or, in some cases, Judaism) on campus. In March, SJP circulated a petition against a talk by activist Janet Mock, who is a leader on issues of trans rights, racial justice, and more, because the group that had organized her visit to campus was Jewish (although it had no affiliation with or position on Israel). I had many friends who, as LGBTQIA+ people and/or people of color, were excited to hear her speak, and all were bitterly disappointed when SJP successfully pressured her into forfeiting the opportunity for engagement.
SJP consistently facilitates anti-Semitism. Their attack on Janet Mock’s presentation was an anti-Semitic initiative, and that incident was followed by graffiti evoking the Holocaust and threatening Jewish and LGBTQIA+ students, which SJP pointedly refused to condemn. SJP kicked off last semester by protesting an event on “Jewish journeys” and accusing actor Michael Douglas, who is Jewish but not Israeli, of serving as an insidious agent for the Israeli government. They also shamelessly erased Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewry by pushing Brown’s eateries not to offer Israeli hummus, claiming that Southwest Asian foods are culturally appropriated by Israel, as though Southwest Asian Jews had not been producing and consuming the same foods for centuries.
SJP has also consistently demonstrated total disregard for the wellbeing of Palestinians. Aside from opposing efforts to support Syrian refugees, many of whom are themselves Palestinian, they also refuse to engage constructively on issues directly related to Israel/Palestine. They have rebuffed many invitations from Brown Students for Israel and other groups to contribute to dialogues and represent Palestinian perspectives, and they have even rejected offers to collaborate in bringing to campus voices that speak directly in support of Palestinian rights. Their president literally laughed in my face when I invited him to participate in an event supporting Palestine Works a Palestinian NGO, even when I offered to organize the event without the official involvement of Brown Students for Israel. Palestine Works was “founded by diaspora Palestinians to promote Palestinian economic development and human rights” by bringing law students to Israel/Palestine to stand up for Palestinians, but this did not matter to the Students for Justice in Palestine leadership. They are not interested in supporting Palestinians, only in destroying Israel.
While SJP is the crux of the anti-Zionist movement on campus, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism certainly exist beyond its membership. I have been accused of fascism several times for my support of a two-state solution. Professors turn a blind eye when students in my classes express their discomfort with the existence of AEPi (now Beta Rho Pi) on Brown’s campus because it has a high percentage of “Zionists” (read: Jews) and express discomfort with the existence of Hillel (the center of Jewish life on campus) for the same reason. Countless well-funded events and panels, organized by academic departments, give credence to one narrative on Israel/Palestine, carefully avoiding viewpoints that leave room for Jewish statehood. Teachers’ assistants take advantage of awkward power dynamics to harass Zionist students; once, a TA showed up to one of my classes wearing a shirt that said “intifada” on it and depicted a gun-toting insurgent the day after the Brown Jewish community was shocked by the murder of Boston-area student Ezra Schwartz during his year abroad in Israel/Palestine. Professors openly peddle anti-Zionist narratives in class, and it is only a rare, brave student who speaks up against that impossible power dynamic.
Anti-Zionist students on campus also attempt to hijack movements for minority rights and racial justice, sneaking lines calling for academic boycotts of Israel (which would, in effect, purge the Judaic Studies program) into platforms that have broad student support. For example, a platform calling for more diversity in faculty, a truly important objective, nearly also called implicitly for fewer Jews and fewer alternative voices on Israel/Palestine.
You have probably heard much of this before. What you may not have heard is that it’s not too late for the college campus. As difficult as Brown can be in some ways, all hope is not lost. Groups like Brown Students for Israel fight back against the normative narratives on campus with critical discussions, pro-peace advocacy, and all manner of campus outreach. We create spaces that are safe for Zionists and promote activism against mainstream opposition to our right to statehood. Brown RISD Hillel also serves as a bastion of reasoned conversation on Israel/Palestine, where students can voice varying perspectives without fear. Certain Jewish professors recognize the dangers of campus for Zionist students and provide much-needed support. In other words, there are people here, and on every college campus, who care about Israel and the Jews.
Don’t be afraid, but do be prepared. The answer is not to flee from the campus, to keep your head down, to cave to anti-Zionist pressures, or to condemn academia as a whole. Instead, join us on the front lines, jump into the fray, and work against the status quo with us. Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people are worth the struggle.
Benjamin Gladstone is an intern at the Forward