Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fighting for Jewish Rights on US College Campuses

I spent the last two weeks as Israel Tour Educator for a group of pro-Israel student activists from across the USA who came to Israel as part of a ZOA Israel leadership seminar. We met with Israeli political leaders and analysts, journalists and community leader. We were in Jerusalem and Sederot, Tel Aviv and the Shomron, Hevron, Efrat, the Galil and Golan.

Most of the students have been to Israel a number of times before, more than a few hope to make Aliyah, and the group included two non-Jewish Israel campus activists. They came from a variety of religious, geographic and educational backgrounds – what unites them is their commitment to representing and defending Israel (and the Jewish people) on US college campuses from the hate that confronts them.

That the anti-Israel crowd easily slips into anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery unfortunately comes as no surprise. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it so clearly years ago “You declare my friend that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely anti Zionist. And I say...when people criticize Zionism the mean Jews...anti-Zionist is inherently anti Semitic and will ever be so".

I get quite frustrated with American and Canadian Jewish students who tell me "There is a lot of anti-Israel and anti Jewish activity on my campus…I just stay out of it." as if this is a positive reaction! (Of course our history of the last 2,000 years or so might have something to do with our level of insecurity and fear). Sometimes we "the people of the book" become so focused on words that we forget that actions are also vital. As one of my grad school professors Dr. Elspeth Couch put it " We Jews sometimes forget that we have bodies" .

But most of these ZOA student activists are different – they do get involved, they put themselves on the line for Israel and the Jewish people. They organize, they publicize, they debate, they march, they protest, they publish etc. Often the reaction is not so friendly from their “fellow Americans”. One student related that a swastika was painted on the door of her dorm room. Others tell of verbal abuse and physical intimidation. Another related:

Quite depressing was this last semester when I was dealing with the situation with the event calling for an academic boycott against Israel. I seemed to be the lone voice calling out in the desert. Though I did have some support from several professors and students, most in the Jewish Studies department, and other local “Jewish organizations” were too afraid to speak out.

It is outrageous that in 2010 on American college campuses, Jewish students and their friends, in addition to doing the usual – studying, partying etc - need to defend themselves and the Jewish people against Jew hatred and Israel hatred. It is also outrageous that the Jewish world has somehow accepted this as the “normal” and expected state of affairs.

As a long time Aliyah activist it certainly makes sense to me that Jews in the Diaspora (even in America) will feel insecure and threatened. After all it is only here in Israel that for the first time in centuries we Jews have the ability to forge our own destiny (at least partially) and not be at the mercy of others. That is certainly a big part of the message and inspiration that they take back with them from here. But at the same time, these students fill me with hope for the future. We need courage, faith, confidence and leadership. We need to believe in ourselves…and trust in God. And in many of these student activists, I saw exactly that.

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