It’s whiplash time for Jewish students on college campuses.
With Israel Apartheid Week set to begin and with a rise in white supremacist activity, as noted in an Anti-Defamation League report out this week, Jewish students are getting it from both the political left and the political right.
Supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are poised to unleash their arsenal of guerrilla theater (mock apartheid walls, eviction notices, die-ins on the quad) in an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. And the new threat of white supremacist activity is gaining steam, according to experts, from “a divisive presidential campaign” and its aftermath.
A Hillel director on the West Coast, capturing the mood of Jewish students, told The Jewish Week ominously: “While in the past, vitriol towards Israel and campus boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns have frequently left Jewish students isolated, this new sort of extremism is creating an even more dicey situation for Jewish students, and for Hillel staff.” (The director requested to speak anonymously because of security concerns.)
Jewish students are getting it from both the political left and the political right.
But just as President Trump’s travel ban targeting those in Muslim-majority nations is helping to forge an unlikely campus alliance between Jewish and Muslim students — and between Jews and Muslims beyond the campus — some Hillel directors are seeing an unexpected silver lining in the new campus climate.
“In many ways, this creates an opening for Jewish students,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of the Hillel at UCLA. “In the past, student groups got away with excluding Jewish students from the minority community.” At UCLA, which has a particularly high number of Jews of color and Persian Jews, this is particularly upsetting, he said.
Issues such as BDS and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have driven a wedge between pro-Israel Jewish groups and other campus minorities, including black student unions and Muslim student groups. So-called “intersectional” campus alliances frequently leave Hillel students isolated — groups that have no direct connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including LGBTQ groups and groups that work to prevent sexual assault, refused to work with Hillel in the past because of its pro-Israel stance. The effect has been to rob Jewish students of what might originally be natural allies on a whole host of issues.
Meanwhile, a slew of anti-Semitic attacks is leaving the American Jewish community feeling increasingly vulnerable. In the sixth wave of attacks since the beginning of the year, four JCCs received threats of lethal attacks Tuesday morning, including the JCC in Syracuse. The ADL offices in New York also received threats on Tuesday morning. More than 100 Jewish institutions, mostly JCCs, have received bomb threats since the beginning of the year.
“Jews remain a vulnerable community,” said UCLA’s Lerner. “The combination of cemetery vandalism and bomb threats directed against Jewish institutions is challenging the narrative that we are white and privileged.”
On campus, the onslaught of incidents shows other minority student groups that “Jews remain a vulnerable community,” said UCLA’s Lerner. “The combination of cemetery vandalism and bomb threats directed against Jewish institutions is challenging the narrative that we are white and privileged.”
The new campus climate is going to “play out poorly for BDS activists,” Lerner said. In the past, UCLA students have felt threatened by aggressive pro-BDS activism; in September 2016, the former president of the UCLA Graduate Students Association left the university’s law school over what he called “a hostile and unsafe environment for students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who choose not to support the BDS movement, let alone support the state of Israel.”
“Israel is not going to be the dominant issue on campus anymore,” Lerner predicted. Immigration, women’s rights, sexual violence — these will be the new issues animating student activism,” he said. “It is going to be a time for Jewish students to own our shared values with other minorities,” he said. “Defending the stranger, the impoverished; making sure anyone who is low in society is prioritized — these are our values.”
Cindy Hughey, executive director of Hillel at Michigan State University and the Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan, praised the administration at Central Michigan University after a recent anti-Semitic incident. On Feb. 10, a mock Valentine’s Day note written by someone posing as Adolf Hitler was circulated on campus; it read, “my love 4 u burns like 6,000 jews.” The card surfaced after a Valentine’s Day event held by a Republican student group.
“The administration jumped all over it,” said Hughey, who serves 5,000 Jewish students at 11 campuses across the state. A police investigation was quickly launched, and the perpetrator, a Central Michigan University alumnus, was banned from campus.
“Israel is not going to be the dominant issue on campus anymore,” Lerner predicted. Immigration, women’s rights, sexual violence — these will be the new issues animating student activism,”
Hughey thinks the incident, though unfortunate, will actually increase awareness of anti-Semitism on campus.
“Now anti-Semitism is being included in the formal diversity education on campus,” she said. Until now, the curricula dealt largely with racism, homophobia and Islamophobia. “Students will be made more aware of what anti-Semitism is and what it means.”
According to the report released this week by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacist incidents on college campuses have surged since the school year began last September.
The ADL cataloged 104 incidents in which groups put up fliers with inflammatory and sometimes explicitly anti-Semitic messages — with 65 incidents taking place since January. The fliers were posted on at least 66 campuses in 32 states, according to Oren Segal, director of ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“Young people are a prime target for recruitment,” said Segal, who said white supremacist groups have been “emboldened” in the past year. “The divisive presidential campaign spoke to them. The mainstreaming of their message is a direct result of the presidential campaign.”
Hillel staff members are in the process of devising strategies to combat the threat. Six additional Hillel executive directors on campuses where white supremacist incidents took place were interviewed for this article; of the six, three did not want to comment and the other three said their campuses have not been noticeably affected.
Segal pointed out that most of the fliering incidents on campus were not “geared towards vilifying the Jewish community”; most targeted other minority groups, including Muslims and immigrants. However, “white supremacy is inherently anti-Semitic.”
The feeling among alt-right groups is aggressive and opportunistic, he said. “The time to strike is now,” Segal said, referring to their sense of urgency. “It’s part of the mainstreaming of their message.” President Trump’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon, formerly headed the Breitbart news site, which traffics in the alt-right, nationalist ideology.
“The recent rise in white supremacist and anti-Semitic activities, on campus and beyond, is deeply concerning,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, who was named last month to the national board of the NAACP. “It flies in the face of our nation’s foundational values as a place of religious freedom and inclusion. More than ever, it’s essential for students — and all of us — to work to forge relationships and partnerships across lines of race, class and faith that will stand together against acts of hate and harmful rhetoric.”
A Hillel director in the Midwest, speaking off the record due to security concerns, said: “While the perpetrators of these incidents may be doing it for attention, we have to figure out how to educate the perpetrators without creating a culture of fear among our own students. Any environment with extremism creates extreme behavior. The far right is taking advantage.”