Jewish Students Caught In Identity Politics Crossfire

Jewish Students Caught In Identity Politics Crossfire

Molly Horwitz isn't alone. After the incident at Stanford, experts and student leaders here weigh in. Was this case different?

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at

Naomi Kadish, a student leader at NYU, sent Molly Horwitz a Facebook message in solidarity after reading about her in The New York Times.

“I wanted her to know she had support,” said Kadish, legislative committee-member of TorchPAC, the pro-Israel group at NYU. “What happens to one Jewish student leader affects us all.”

Horwitz, a candidate running for student government at Stanford University, made headlines last week after claiming she was asked how her Judaism affects her view of divestment from Israel, changing a campus election into a fierce discussion about identity politics.

According to Horwitz, a member of the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) asked her how she would vote on divestment, given her “Jewish identity.” Taken aback, Horwitz responded that she opposed divestment; she did not receive the group’s endorsement. Members of SOCC have since called Horwitz’s charge “baseless.”

In a student survey released this week, the Jewish Student Association at Stanford found that the incident is not isolated. According to an open letter published in the Stanford Daily, many Jewish students no longer feel accepted on campus because of their Jewish identity.

“Our survey indicated that many Jewish students, even those not engaged in the debate over divestment, have felt excluded solely due to their Jewish identities,” the open letter reads. “For instance, some reported being silenced in conversations due to their peers’ perception that their Jewish identity relegates them to a place of naïve bias. Others expressed pain because they feel the need to hide their connection to the larger Jewish community.”

Similar to Horwitz, who scrubbed her Facebook page of any reference to Israel before running in the election, Jewish students at Stanford said they do not feel comfortable expressing their love of Israel, an integral aspect of their Jewish identity.

This is not the first time the debate on college campuses over divestment from Israel has led to discussions about anti-Semitism. Earlier this year, students at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a Jewish student who was a candidate for a campus judicial committee whether her religion would influence her decision-making. Unlike at Stanford, where Horwitz’s claims are still being investigated, the incident was caught on tape.

“The intensity and volume of these incidents has increased,” said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. Though these cases took place on the West Coast, they are not “geographically isolated,” he said; a similar “environment of hostility” is at play in campuses across New York.

“Debates on campus must be limited to what you think, not who you are,” said Salberg, explaining why he believes the incident, if true as alleged, was anti-Semitic. “When others start looking at immutable characteristics, like race and ethnicity, and extrapolating political positions, a line has been crossed.”

Melanie Goldberg, a graduate of Brooklyn College, recalled the atmosphere of hostility she faced as a pro-Israel student on campus, especially concerning divestment. At the time, she and three other pro-Israel students were ousted from a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions event for handing out fliers.

“Student groups claim that they’re not anti-Semitic, they just oppose Israeli policies,” said Goldberg, currently a law student at Cardozo Law School. “But if they’re only going to ask Jewish students about Israeli policy, that’s contradictory. Incidents like this reveal internal inconsistences at the root of the problem.”

Though Goldberg never ran for office, she said it was commonplace for student body representatives to hide their Jewish identity in order to solicit votes.

“If you were openly Jewish, it could work against you,” she recalled.

Sydney Levy, the advocacy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a nonprofit group that supports divestment from Israel, agreed that “disentangling” Jewish identity from Israeli policy is an imperative.

“Mainstream pro-Israel groups repeatedly claim to represent all Jews, and explicitly state that all Jews are against divestment,” he said, speaking on the phone from his office in Oakland, Calif. “This is not true, and it confuses others.”

What happened at Stanford is symptomatic of what’s happening on campuses across the country, he said. “Jewish students are being told by mainstream organizations that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. As a community, we need to be a better job of un-meshing the two.”

Hindy Poupko, managing director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, reinforced that what happened at UCLA and Stanford are not “isolated incidents.”

“On campus, we are seeing a deliberate attempt by BDS-supporters to cast Jewish activists as somehow suspect,” said Poupko, who serves as a campus consultant in New York. She likened the incident to BDS-activist Josh Ruebner’s recent comments referring to New York Sen. Charles Schumer as an “Israel-firster,” a derogatory term used to deride supporters of Israel.

“Comments like these are reminiscent of old-time anti-Semitic stereotypes, portraying Jews as unable to remain loyal to their home country,” she said. “The allegations leveled by the BDS movement against Senator Schumer are the same allegations being leveled against some of our students in the context of student government elections.”

Poupko also pointed out that overt anti-Semitism, like swastikas painted on campus, have frequently appeared shortly after campus debates regarding Israel.

“Jewish students are singled out in the Israel debate, so what often follows is not surprising,” she said.

Linda Maizels, director of Israel and international concerns at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, stressed the importance of placing incidents like this in a historical context.

“This is not something new — the conversation around Israel crests and troughs based on what’s going in the Middle East,” she said.

Still, the BDS-movement on campus right now is different in certain ways, she said.

“Firstly, BDS is seen as the right choice on campus, and those who oppose divestment are seen as oppressive and threatening,” she said. The second problem is that Jewish students are “presupposed to all feel the same way,” based on their identity affiliations.

“Jewish students are being silenced because they are assumed to be biased, and therefore unfit to participate in the debate,” she said.

Though both are concerning, jumping to accusations of anti-Semitism has risks, said Maizels. While “highly sensitive antenna” is understandable, if overused, the cry of anti-Semitism might eventually desensitize others. Determining when “that line is crossed” is increasingly difficult, she said.

NYU’s Kadish, a freshman studying economics and politics, is considering running for student senators council next year. Though what allegedly happened to Horwitz is “disturbing and scary,” Kadish won’t let it dissuade her from entering the race.

“I’m not ashamed to have a pro-Israel group on my resume,” she said. Though she doesn’t judge Horwitz for hiding her connections to Israel, Kadish hopes a defiant approach will boost her platform. “I support Israel,” she said. “Let people ask.”

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