On Monday night, 100 students associated with the Columbia/Barnard Hillel sprinted around campus papering bulletin boards with more than 6,000 pro-Israel flyers.
The flyer campaign, entitled “Speak The Truth,” was intended to combat Israel Apartheid Week, an annual campaign criticizing Israel and promoting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which began Monday on college campuses across the U.S.
“We’ve had our flyers vandalized and removed; it’s been more vicious and disrespectful than we’re used to,” said Daniella Greenbaum, a sophomore at Barnard and a board member of Aryeh (formerly LionPAC), the largest Israel advocacy group on campus.
Though tensions surrounding Israel have peaked during Israel Apartheid Week in the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election comments last week were seen as fanning the flames. As Hillel students and faculty struggle to present a unified front, the prime minister’s comments left many questioning how to respond.
“The task of defending Israel was already hard — now it’ll be much harder,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of the Bronfman Center at NYU, a reference to Netanyahu’s comments about Arab voters turning out in “droves.” (Netanyahu has since apologized to Arab voters.)
According to Sarna, tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups on campus are on a “slow boil.”
“Pressure has been steadily increasing for the past two years — images from the war in Gaza, the Ferguson protests being linked to the Palestinian cause — these have all raised the temperature. Netanyahu’s comments have turned up the heat one more notch.”
At Columbia, students from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a pro-Palestinian college student activism organization, countered Hillel with flyers of their own. Many of them featured direct quotes from Netanyahu’s Election Day speech reversing his position on a two-state solution. (Netanyahu has since qualified his statements.)
This year, in a first on the Columbia campus, no pro-Zionist student group has a table near SJP to protest its stance, according to Greenbaum. In past years, a member of Aryeh has stood near the Columbia library at the center of campus waving an Israeli flag and protesting the makeshift wall SJP erects, echoing the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
SJP booked both spots with Columbia administration far in advance, Greenbaum said. Though Hillel requested one spot to balance the conversation, SJP instead gave the spot to Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which promotes BDS and considers Israel an apartheid state.
“This is the first time the student body is realizing that Zionism is not the only Jewish voice on campus,” said Chris Godshall, one of the founding members of Columbia’s JVP chapter. Godshall, whose mother is Jewish, went to Israel for the first time on the Birthright Israel program. He described witnessing “disturbing” racism towards Lebanese Arabs while in Israel. “Israel is full of divisions, and so are Israel supporters,” he said, standing in front of the Columbia library shortly before SJP erected the wall.
Godshall added that Netanyahu’s recent reversal of his position on a two-state solution helped their case. “It’s not the sole focus of our campaign, but it’s definitely relevant,” he said.
Without an SJP chapter, things are quieter at Queens College, whose 4,000 Jewish students represent about a quarter of the student body. But apathy, said Uri Cohen, executive director of the Queens Hillel, is a problem.
“Absolute disinterest among students is what’s going to hurt Israel far more than anything Netanyahu says to win an election,” he said.
According to NYU student leader Laura Adkins, the situation in Greenwich Village is somewhere between Columbia and Queens College.
“Groups which are outspokenly hostile towards Israel will always be critical of Israel, no matter the political climate,” Adkins, president of TorahPAC, NYU’s Pro-Israel advocacy organization, wrote in an email.
Though she said it was “unfortunate” that Netanyahu’s remarks coincided so closely with Israel Apartheid Week, she believes anti-Israel groups would have pushed to boycott Israel no mater what.
“Anti-Israel groups would continue to hate Israel, whether Netanyahu or [Labor party leader Isaac] Herzog had been democratically elected, because they are against the very existence of the Jewish state,” Adkins wrote.
Still, according to Martin Raffel, a former top official at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the tensions between the U.S. and Israel, which seem to have deepened after the Israeli election, “makes life very uneasy for the Jewish community, students and community activists included.”
For Barnard’s Greenbaum, agreeing with every decision Israel makes is not central to supporting the state. “Even among Israel advocates, there is a large spectrum of opinions,” she said, noting that many were deeply disappointed by the prime minister’s comments. Still, a strong U.S.-Israel relationship remains the priority.
“We’re going to oppose Israel Apartheid Week, no matter who the prime minister is,” she said. “And when they rip down our flyers, we’re going to put them up again. And again.”