As Israel Apartheid Week launched at schools across the country last month, StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group, had a message: pro-Israel students needed to fight.
The Israel advocacy organization’s statement described the campus Israeli-Palestinian climate in bellicose terms, calling IAW a “hate fest,” and advocating a “hard-hitting, aggressive response” on some campuses. It reassured readers that StandWithUs has “a big arsenal of materials for students” countering anti-Israel activities.
An event organized by conservative activist David Horowitz in February went even further than StandWithUs, presenting a panel on “Jew Hatred on College Campuses” and claiming in the event’s description that “aggressive anti-Semitism, now camouflaged as ‘criticism of Israel,’ has raised its ugly head at American universities creating a hostile environment for Jewish students.”
A fundraising e-mail by Pittsburgh Hillel Director Aaron Weill spoke to similar concerns, saying that Hillel asked for police protection at a pro-Israel event because a protest endangered the “safety of students.” In a letter to New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine I edit, Weill wrote that “shrying gevalt,” or raising an alarm, “has worked as a fundraising tool … for millennia.”
But Weill’s warnings misrepresent the campus atmosphere that pro-Israel students face. The anti-Israel protest Weill mentioned, according to his e-mail, included two nonviolent demonstrations — one of which was silent. Such tactics do not endanger students.
While it faces some opposition, the campus pro-Israel community at large is robust and secure. And though flare-ups in Israeli-Palestinian discourse occur on a few campuses, most pro-Israel students feel safe and face no danger to their social, physical or academic security.
Columbia University junior Michael Shapiro, president of Lion PAC, the school’s largest pro-Israel group, said that though “there is a lot of anti-Israel spirit” at Columbia, “we do feel like it’s a relatively small voice on campus in comparison to the pro-Israel voice.”
Some pro-Israel groups have hyped Columbia as a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, as the school has hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a speaker and opened the nation’s first Center for Palestine Studies this year. But regardless of the opposition his group faces, Shapiro called Lion PAC “very proactive” — hosting distinguished speakers, sponsoring an Israel Shabbat at Hillel and going to Washington to lobby politicians.
Pro-Israel activists have a strong presence at hundreds of schools, and several national organizations fund campus pro-Israel activities. Hillel, which counts Israel advocacy as a core part of its mission, has staff at over 550 schools nationwide. The Israel On Campus Coalition, an umbrella campus pro-Israel organization, includes 29 member groups.
While over 50 campuses host anti-Israel groups, pro-Israel student organizations like Lion PAC vastly outnumber them and receive organizational support from national advocacy organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, StandWithUs and J Street, which brought 500 students to its conference last month.
Middlebury College senior Moriel Rothman, the national president of J Street U — the college arm of J Street — said that while some tension exists between campus activists, those who are off campus should realize that the respective advocacy groups — and their occasional fracases — are relatively small. Rothman said that most students are not “incredibly informed” about the conflict from either side, and that for “the majority of college students, this is not their primary issue.”
Rothman also noted that no one campus Israel climate is like the other. While Columbia hosts multiple Israel groups, J Street U is the only pro-Israel group at Middlebury. At Washington University in St. Louis, my alma mater, no strictly pro-Palestinian group exists, which gives the pro-Israel groups there a virtual monopoly on discourse.
Extremist anti-Israel activity does occur on some campuses, at times turning violent. Last April, 11 students at the University of California, Irvine, disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, shouting slogans at him and causing him to step down from the podium multiple times. Last year’s Israel Apartheid Week saw Husam Zakharia, an anti-Israel activist, shove a shopping cart into Jessica Felber, a pro-Israel student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Both of these incidents are inexcusable, and both have resulted in legal action. The “Irvine 11” face up to six months in prison for disrupting Oren’s speech, and UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Association has been suspended for a year. Felber is suing UC Berkeley for not protecting her from Zakharia.
But regardless of the campus atmosphere, Rothman said that engaging in dialogue — rather than staking out contrary positions — always leads to less hostility between groups.
“It’s a really polarized debate. Either you’re with us or against us,” Rothman said. “We see that as limiting and dangerous for the future of Israelis and Palestinians, and the climate on campus.” Columbia’s Shapiro, whose group has collaborated with the school’s J Street U affiliate, agreed that “it’s important to have multiple voices.”
While the Jewish establishment seeks to protect Jewish students, it does them a disservice by using combative language to discuss the campus pro-Israel climate, sending a deeply worrisome message to students, parents and the community. Rather, Jewish organizations should recognize that being on campus affords students the opportunity to meet people and listen to perspectives that they might not encounter after graduation.
Those off-campus organizations should also keep in mind that the nature of a college campus — where students live in the same dorms and eat in the same dining halls regardless of political opinion — can lead to amicable relations between activists. Hillel spokesperson Jeff Rubin called this “one of the untold stories of the campus environment.”
“It’s very different from the common environment in the sense that Jewish students and Muslim students live together in the campus community,” Rubin said. “Muslims are still eating kosher food.”
Ben Sales is editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.