A version of this article originally appeared in New Voices.
“Where do you go to school?”
“UC Berkeley? Wow, the front line. You students are fighting an important battle over there. Keep it up!”
I can’t tell you how many times I had this conversation -– at shuls, Shabbat tables, even half a world away in Jewish communities abroad.
The language always struck me. I was on the front lines? I was going to battle? I looked around at Berkeley’s vast green lawns and literal ivory tower, the iconic Campanile. I thought about the kosher co-op I called home. Sure, maybe surviving my computer science course felt like a fight – I wasn’t sure I’d make it – but I knew that wasn’t what they meant. They meant the “war on campus,” the epic existential struggle between Zionists and anti-Zionists (or as these folks would more often put it, “Jews” and “Palestinians”). I was to be lauded as a campus warrior, striking down BDS and sparring with my nemeses in debates on the quad.
Let’s set aside how many assumptions about my campus experience that sentence involved and get to the bigger issue: That militaristic language? It might sound empowering, but it’s no good for campus Jews.
As much as I would love to call this a that-one-guy-at-the-Shabbat-table phenomenon, Jewish campus organizations perpetuate this war zone rhetoric all the time. For example, in their “Explaining BDS” resource guide, StandWithUs refers to BDS as “a dangerous new front that has opened in the war against Israel” on campus. Maccabee Task Force’s mission statement offers to help students “combat” hatred and “attacks on Israel and its supporters,” as if physical attacks on a country and verbal blows exchanged on campus are one and the same. Meanwhile, Jewish media is chockfull of thoughts on “campus wars” and how to “fight anti-Israel haters.”
I assumed nothing but good will from family friends who told me to “fight the battle” at Berkeley. But metaphors matter, and this language sends a harmful message to students. It says, “Your college experience will inevitably be scary, damaging, emotionally violent, [pick-your-doom-laden-adjective-of-choice].”
Jewish students are scared, not only because of what actually happens on campus, but because their communities set them up to be. Israel advocacy organizations break students down, insisting they’ll experience fearsome anti-Semitic horrors, and build them up again, telling them they’re warriors. (And don’t worry, all the sharp talking points they’ll need to deflate enemy ideas will be provided).
Not exactly a scene out of American Pie. This kind of language also lays the foundation for unproductive and caustic campus conversations on Israel. The “war on campus” implies enemy lines, which automatically shuts down any hope for fruitful discussions between Zionist and non-Zionist students.
A Times of Israel blog post, by Claremont McKenna student Jennifer Gurev, struck me as a prime example. She wrote about fearing her Palestinian roommate’s reaction when she admitted she was Jewish and a Zionist. After all, in her community, “I learned only of an incomprehensible hatred for the Jewish people,” she writes. “I felt only fear.” But when Gurev opened up, she and her roommate were able to have a meaningful dialogue.
Students need to be given the room to decide for themselves what ought to be categorized as a “fight” and what should simply be a difficult conversation. And militaristic language doesn’t help; it deemphasizes student agency. “Soldiers” aren’t free to make they’re own decisions, to choose or wage their own wars. They’re hired, trained, and dispatched to their respective fronts. That’s not how students should be seen or taught to see themselves. Part of growing up is picking your own battles, or deciding what should be a battle at all, and framing students as campus fighters doesn’t imply that level of independence.
What if, instead of telling students to fight, we told them to stand up for what they believe in? What if, instead of calling students “Israel warriors,” we called them learners, activists, and leaders and let them decide how those roles fit into Israel conversations on campus – unfettered by the pressures and premonitions of war metaphors? If we want to empower young Jews, this soldier archetype isn’t the answer.
As linguist George Lakoff put it, “New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.” It’s time we create a new reality.
To the next generation of students: I hope conversations with members of your community, at your shuls and Shabbat tables, go differently. I hope, instead of ending in platitudes about BDS and battlefields, they start with a question.
“UC Berkeley? Cool. What’s that like for you?”