by Josh Hamerman
Jewish college students are counteracting anti-Zionist and antisemitic factions on campus.
When Rabbi Marc Israel was a student at the University of Michigan, he overheard one of his classmates using the expression "Jewing him down." "This was someone from rural Michigan who had very little contact with Jews," Rabbi Israel recalls. "He just didn't realize that the expression was offensive. When I explained in a non-confrontational tone why this was insulting and hurtful, he apologized. It was the right way to handle the situation. Had I immediately screamed antisemitism, he probably would have become defensive, and any chance of dialogue would have been lost."
Today, as director of the Union for Reform Judaism's KESHER College Department, Rabbi Israel counsels a new generation of Reform college students who are subjected to antisemitic remarks on campus. He advises the undergrads to approach the offending peer or instructor one-on-one and to explain in a calm manner why the comment was upsetting. Doing so, he says, can help you discern whether the remark is grounded in ignorance or hostility. "Sometimes it's a matter of a professor's or a student's sensitivity level, and if that's the case, you need to make them aware. Most of the time, when you confront people about this, they understand why the comment was offensive--or at least they back down and desist."
On the other hand, Rabbi Israel says, "if an antisemitic comment is clearly intended to incite intimidation and hurt, don't hesitate to report the incident to school officials [the campus ombudsman or anti-discrimination office] as well as to your campus Hillel, Jewish student union professionals, the Anti-Defamation League, and the local Jewish Community Relations Council. If the offending remark was made by a professor, a complaint should also be filed with the university's office of academic affairs."
According to the ADL's 2003 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, released this past March, the number of antisemitic actions on campuses in 2003 decreased from the levels of the previous five years. Last year, for example, the ADL received 28 reports of vandalism to property and 40 reports of verbal harassment against Jewish students for a total number of 68 reported campus incidents, down 36% from the 106 incidents reported the previous year.
ADL associate director of education William Rothchild believes the drop is connected to the mobilization of Jewish communal organizations, such as the Israel On Campus Coalition (composed of numerous American Jewish groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism), which is committed to helping Jewish professors and students defend Israel on their respective campuses. "The best responses to issues on campus come from faculty," he says. "Students come and go, but tenured professors stay on. They know the ins and outs of campus life, and the people they can speak to in order to resolve an issue."
Most of the antisemitic incidents reported by Jewish college students reflect the anti-Israel sentiment that exists on many North American campuses, especially since September 2000, the start of the current intifada. It was around this time that an anti-Israel riot prevented former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from addressing students at the UC-Berkeley campus. Two years later, militant anti-Israel students stopped Netanyahu from speaking at Concordia University in Montreal.
In responding to campus critics of Israel, Rabbi Israel advises students to try to determine whether they are voicing a legitimate complaint about Israeli government policies or whether they are operating from a platform of veiled antisemitism. "Much of what goes under the guise of opposition to Israel is actually antisemitic," he points out, "but obviously not everyone who opposes Israel's policies is an antisemite. Constructive criticism of Israel's policies is not the same as saying Israel is a terrible country and everything Israel does is wrong."
How can students ascertain the motivation of those who engage in anti-Israel rhetoric? Rabbi Israel suggests that critics of Israel need to meet two criteria if they are to be considered untainted by antisemitism: "First, they must accept the right of a Jewish state to exist in the land of Israel. Denying the Jewish people the right to sovereignty in their historic homeland is essentially an antisemitic position because it singles out Jews as undeserving of their own state and ignores Israel's status as an independent nation recognized by the UN. Second, they do not hold Israel to a different or higher standard than other nations, such as when a speaker arrives on campus to discuss Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and ignores the treatment of Jews by Arab countries or Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jewish civilians." In cases where the motivation and intent are clearly antisemitic, Rabbi Israel recommends that, rather than protesting the event from outside the arena, students attend the program and take full advantage of the university setting, which values free speech, by asking informed, probing questions. "Also," he says, "make sure pro-Israel voices are heard through editorials and letters in campus newspapers."
The best way to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism is with facts," adds Deborah Passner, campus affairs director for the pro-Israel media monitoring organization CAMERA. "The more knowledgeable you are, the better prepared you are to fight hate-mongers." Passner recommends that students refute anti-Israel propaganda by presenting clear, specific evidence to the contrary; doing so, she says, serves to prevent hate-mongers from gaining the upper hand in influencing the attitudes of uninformed people. She encourages students to visit such sites as the Middle East Media Research Institute (http://www. memri.org) and Palestinian Media Watch (http://www.pmw.co.il), as well as the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (http://www.haaretzdaily.com).
At UC-Berkeley, anti-Israel sentiment is waning, in part because, Jewish students say, they employed the strategy: "the best defense is a good offense." "A few years ago, being anti-Israel was the cause du jour," says David Singer, a KESHER chavurah chair and UC-Berkeley Jewish Student Union (JSU) president, "and in response the Jewish students put together Israel programming." At the JSU's invitation, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former US Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross spoke on campus, and, in response to an anti-Israel petition (with 200 signatures) calling for the university to divest from companies with business connections to the Jewish state, pro-Israel students presented the Israeli prime minister with a counter-petition signed by more than 1,200 students in support of Israel's struggle for peace. "Our efforts have paid off," says Singer. "This past year we've seen a sharp decline in anti-Israel programming at UC-Berkeley."
Institutions of higher learning have also confronted antisemitism in the form of vandalism. Last year, students at Colorado College in Colorado Springs awoke to find swastikas and antisemitic slurs spray-painted on school-owned vans, two academic buildings, and the Hillel chapel--where a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) service was scheduled to take place that evening. "The administration took immediate action to find the perpetrators--two foreign students--and help us remove the graffiti," says sophomore Shanna Katz, a Reform KESHER chavurah chair who had been elected Hillel president only days before the incident. "They also allowed us to have a say in their punishment." In the end, one student was expelled and the other suspended for one year--but to resume studies he needs to reapply to the school and have his application approved by Hillel (so far, he has not reapplied).
The Yom Hashoah service was held as scheduled. At its conclusion, students walked by candlelight to the defaced Hillel chapel. "We learned that in the face of an antisemitic incident, it's best to get as many student groups and administrators to help as you can," Katz says. "This way, the entire campus community can come together to stand up against antisemitism and other forms of discrimination." Adds the ADL's Rothchild: "The worst response to antisemitism is no response."
Josh Hamerman is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he earned a B.A. in journalism, and a member of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey.
Copyright © 2004, Union for Reform Judaism