Anti-Zionism on college campuses has come to be a defining factor in the life of an involved Jewish student. In the past year, this campus debate saw a proliferation of attention on the national stage in the form of multiple high-profile op-eds, an array of infamous incidents and even a Trump executive order. According to the Anti-Defamation League, (ADL) there are roughly 500 anti-Israel events that take place on American university campuses each year. This number, of course, doesn’t even begin to take into account all of the individual cases of anti-Zionism that occur student to student, professor to student, or even a professor to an entire class. Even on a personal level, as a Hillel Rabbi at UC Irvine, I have been verbally attacked and even threatened multiple times this past year.
For a student, starting university is a pivotal inflection point of young adulthood. While college is often looked to as one of the happiest and most exciting times of life, and rightfully so, it also comes with its own unique challenges. For most, this is the first time that one moves away from home, leaving their family and childhood friends, entering into the fast paced and high stress world of college and attempting to discover one’s true identity. With rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness at all-time highs for American college students, adding in a pervasive environment of anti-Israelism across campus can simply become too much to handle.
But there is a more nefarious aspect to this anti-Israel ubiquity. Often groups that push a strong anti-Israel narrative, specifically Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their ilk, will speciously connect the situation of the Palestinians to virtually any other case of suffering one can imagine. When student worker groups go on strike—asking the university for higher wages—SJP is always present attempting to co-opt the event for its own gain. LGBTQ clubs, Black Student Unions, student government groups, etc—whenever there is a campus group trying to rightfully combat suffering, SJP is there to steal the narrative. This tactic has been particularly successful in forcing progressive Jewish students to choose between their Jewish communal affiliation and political involvement.
But, amidst the increase in anti-Israel activity, there are signs that universities and administrators are responding. A well-known policy adopted by the UC Regents just a few years ago clearly states that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism and has no place on campus. This past December President Trump, with a nod to college campuses, signed an executive order adding Jews to the sweeping protections that exist under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. This order, most fundamentally, acknowledges that Judaism is not simply a religion but also has nationalistic (and other) components. While there is a debate to be had surrounding the merits of both of these actions—it clearly shows that the administrative tide is starting to shift when it comes to protecting campus Jews from radical anti-Zionism.
The most crucial response, however, doesn’t come in the form of administrator signatures but through education. Most anti-Israel campus sentiment and activity arises from a simple lack of knowledge surrounding the Jewish state and her history. The real battle to be won is one of ideas, not top-down authority. Ensuring that campuses have large Jewish student groups with educators who can speak to the nuances of Israel, an engaged and supportive wider Jewish community, and opportunities to actually take students to Israel, are fundamental in helping to combat and curb the anti-Israel tide.
With the recent novel coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lock-down, campuses across the country are closed, but that doesn’t mean respite from anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations everywhere have reported cases of Zoom-bombing, people coming into group video chats to disrupt (or worse), and the ADL has reported a massive increase in all forms of online anti-Semitism. On multiple anti-Israel social media accounts, Israel has been held responsible for the virus and has even been compared to the coronavirus itself, echoing a millennium old anti-Semitic canard. A former SJP leader posted a disturbing reaction to news that a Holocaust survivor living in Israel had been killed by the virus,writing, “Anyways, should I paint my nails red or green today?”
The reality is that anti-Israelism will continue to exist in a multiplicity of forms for the near future. It is simply the next iteration in the malleable and ever-morphing idea of anti-Semitism, and as a community we must do our part to combat its effects. Getting involved in your local Jewish community, supporting strong and robust Jewish campus life, and ensuring that you understand Israel and many of the defining factors surrounding its geo-political position, are all keys to ensuring that the fight is not lost.
DANIEL LEVINE is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine and A Senior Jewish Educator for Hillel. His email is Dlevine21@gmail.com