A neighborhood boy calls my daughter a “fat pig” and I end up thinking about anti-Israel bullying on campus. Maybe that’s the way it goes when you’re the founder of a nonprofit that goes to bat for Israel.
Here’s what happened: Recently my wife and I learned that a neighborhood boy had threatened to punch my daughter in the face while using the aforementioned “fat pig” insult.
My daughter came inside the house upset and anxious, crying, “Why did he pick on me? I am not even fat!” Clearly, she felt singled out and unfairly targeted, despite the fact that the boy had been intimidating all the girls in the neighborhood, without exception, in the same manner for weeks. She was dreading the next encounter with the bully.
We talked with her about how she might, in the future, use humor, indifference or peer pressure to respond to the boy. After a few days of experimentation with these new tools, my daughter now rises up to defend other girls who are targeted, and solicits the help of others whenever she feels threatened.
The key point here is that while the boy’s behavior has not changed, my daughter and the other girls are now able to work together to shrug off the unwanted verbal abuse without feeling demoralized or endangered. She now beams at her new sense of strength and deepened relationships with the girls.
While my daughter and friends had to deal with one boy, Jewish students on many college campuses struggle with intimidating groups of anti-Israel students and their numerous faculty sympathizers. Outside the safety of a Hillel house, many students tuck in their Stars of David and express the same dread, fear and isolation my daughter felt.
The widespread Jewish fear resulting from anti-Iraq war demonstrations that often called for violence against Jews at many American college campuses in 2003 was a turning point for me. I decided to volunteer my litigation graphics experience for Israel’s case by designing posters for students to educate peers about how Israelis share their values on many progressive issues. This led to my founding BlueStar in 2003, which has since given away resources to appreciative students on more than 200 campuses.
In the past seven years, campus problems have spread dramatically. Last month students at Princeton tried to boycott Sabra hummus, Columbia students set up mock IDF checkpoints and Rutgers students raised money for a new flotilla to Gaza. Worse yet, Jewish students at York University in Toronto were forced to barricade themselves inside the Hillel offices last year after an angry mob chased them screaming: “Die, Jew, die, Get the hell off campus!”
Anti-Israel activists unfairly justify psychologically intimidating treatment against Jewish students as an appropriate way to show their criticism of Israel.
“There are so many anti-Israel and even pro-Hamas activities and symbols on campus today that supporters of Israel are worn down, really afraid to present even the most basic humanitarian facts about our side of the story,” remarked Noam Bedein of the Sderot Media Center after a recent U.S. speaking tour.
Many Jewish communal strategies exist to educate students about Israel and advocacy skills. But no program that I am aware of combines all three areas — fighting anti-Israel vitriol, being an advocate for Israel and dealing with bullying — into a specialized solution. We need to proactively work together to help Jewish college students overcome anti-Israel campus experiences with their self-esteem and passion for Israel intact.
Seeing how anti-bullying coping strategies helped my daughter, I’m convinced it is time to teach anti-bullying coping skills to the 80,000 Jews who enter college every year.
BlueStar intends to help turn things around. Through Write On For Israel, we use journalism and documentary film production to help high school students discover their passion for Israel while becoming strong advocates. This year, we will add anti-bullying coping strategies to help students “fight” back. Next year we hope to partner with Hillels on campuses to launch a new college version of the program.
In 2011 we are starting a program for adults interested in strengthening our community’s voice against unfair media coverage or simply looking for ways to counter an anti-Israel comment at a cocktail party (Quick: How would you respond to a partygoer who tells the group that Israel should never have been created?).
Our goal for the program is to make sure that everyone who cares about Israel’s future can discover their courage, learn advocacy skills and feel empowered by the support of like-minded peers.
Like my daughter and her friends, we may not be able to silence every opponent (the proposed anti-Israel bus posters in Seattle come to mind), but we can strengthen our community’s ability to thrive despite the persistence of adversaries.
Jonathan Carey is executive director of BlueStar PR, and directs the San Francisco community’s Write On For Israel advocacy program for high school students, affiliated with The Jewish Week’s program of the same name. (Write On, sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, also operates in Chicago and Cleveland.)