Last month, thousands of teenagers moved into their dorms and transformed into college students, excited and nervous about what lies ahead. Jewish students who are also supporters of Israel have reason to be a little more nervous than most. One does not need to be an expert on campus life or even an avid consumer of Jewish journalism to know that Israel is not the most popular country on American college campuses. Thanks to both traditional and social media, most Jewish incoming freshman have probably already heard about anti-Israel sentiment on campus and many are familiar with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state.
I first stepped foot onto the Columbia campus in August 2014, hyperaware of the situation that awaited me on campus, but instead of beginning school afraid of the challenges my Zionism would face, I was excited.
As soon as I got to campus, before I decided what my major would be or which other extracurricular activities I would pursue, I joined Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel. I very quickly took on far more responsibility than the average Aryeh rookie. And so, when Students for Justice in Palestine set up a mock checkpoint in the most visible spot on campus at the end of November, I jumped at the opportunity to write an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school paper, criticizing SJP’s campaign and defending Israel against their allegations of apartheid. The following week, when the president of Barnard gave the introductory remarks at a panel discussion, in which she compared the alleged institutional racism in both Gaza and Ferguson, Mo., a fellow student and I published an op-ed criticizing the president and defending Israel against several claims made at the event.
To say that the op-eds were not accepted warmly by the student body would be an understatement. People criticized me in the hallways, in the pages of the Spectator, via email, social media and any other imaginable medium of communication.
It took me a long time to admit this, but I have concluded that on some level, my detractors were right: I should not have written both of those op-eds within the same week. But I came to this conclusion for different reasons.
Not too long after the op-ed debacle, I came across an article from 1990 written by a fellow Columbia alumnus, Ze’ev Maghen. Now a professor in Israel, Maghen was a graduate student at Columbia in 1990 when Leonard Jeffries, an anti-Semitic professor of African studies at another university, came to speak on campus. The Jewish community organized a protest outside the hall. Scandalized by this response, Maghen wrote an essay, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
Here’s a taste of his argument: “A man calls you a pig. Do you walk around with a sign explaining that, in fact, you are not a pig? Do you hand out leaflets expostulating in detail upon the manifold differences between you and a pig?”
Obviously, the answer to this is no. Responding to such allegations is absurd and lends undeserved validity to the accuser. It’s also exhausting and leads to quick burnout. Worst of all, it lets the accuser set the terms of the conversation. Instead of taking a crouched, defensive position, Maghen argues that the only answer to anti-Semitism is Jewish pride. Jews have always survived by building and affirming — not by defending and pleading. Pro-Israel Jews must showcase their Zionism proudly and confidently, not as though they have someone to answer to or something to hide.
My fellow Aryeh members and I were so moved by this article that we completely re-evaluated our strategy. Instead of focusing on countering SJP, we set our own goals for the semester that were almost entirely independent of their efforts. We decided that in place of our usual counter-demonstration on College Walk during Apartheid Week in the spring, we would run our own Israel Week during the fall, based on our own, completely independent agenda. We hosted several Israel 101 events, where we presented Israel’s amazing story and shared the richness of Israeli society with students who were genuinely interested in learning more. Aryeh’s reputation changed from being that annoying club that always publishes whiney op-eds to an independent organization with one of the most comprehensive programming schedules on campus.
This isn’t to say that it’s never appropriate to respond to anti-Israel campaigns. Last spring, when Columbia’s BDS group approached the student council to vote on whether to hold a school-wide referendum on divestment from Israel, we did not take Maghen’s approach — the stakes were just too high. But we did not wage our fight on College Walk or on the pages of the Spectator either. Instead, we banked on relationships we had built with members of student council over the previous two years — on the friendships forged over coffee dates discussing why BDS does not belong on our campus, on the many students on council who had come to our events and on those who had travelled to Israel with Hillel. When a friend and I presented the case against BDS officially at a student council meeting, we made sure that there would be a diverse group of students in the room who were prepared to contribute their perspective on why a question about BDS should not be on the ballot.
After a three-and-a-half-hour meeting — probably the longest three hours of my life — the student council voted against a BDS referendum by a large margin.
I firmly believe that we were successful last spring because our approach to BDS was not reactionary but was proactive, based on years of under-the-radar work. We played the long game, and we won.
To freshmen keen on entering college and getting involved in pro-Israel work right away: please do — we need you and your energy. But it’s also important to recognize that while it’s often tempting to respond to every aggravating anti-Israel event or article with a full-blown counterattack, people will respect you more — and you might even be more successful — if you learn to exercise restraint. Instead of agonizing over responses to anti-Israel articles and events, focus your efforts on creating positive Jewish and Israel-related experiences.
And if you do decide to publish defensive op-eds, maybe try not to do more than one per week.
Note: This piece was adapted from Hirt’s remarks at the 2018 Write On For Israel graduation ceremony.
Leeza Hirt graduated from Columbia University in 2018 and is currently pursuing a medical degree at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is a 2013 Write On For Israel graduate.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.