After Gaza conflict, preparing for a potentially stormy year for Israel on campus

, Alina D. Sharon, Leave a comment

This summer’s 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which has come to a close if a cease-fire reached last week holds, has spurred a sharp rise in both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents around the world. At the same time, the boundary between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has become increasingly blurred, particularly on American college campuses.

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Trouble for Jewish students got underway even before the start of classes. At an orientation event in late August, a pro-Israel student at Temple University in Philadelphia was punched in the face by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and called a “baby killer,” “Zionist pig,” and “kike.”

Given this climate, pro-Israel organizations are taking special precautions for the upcoming academic year.

“We are expecting that things can get very ugly this year on many college campuses, including some that were quiet in the past,” Kenneth L. Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told JNS.org.

Phil Nordlinger, director of the Hillel International branch at Temple University, said the branch has “offered members of the community a safe place to discuss their Judaism, feelings towards Israel, reactions to the [SJP] incident, or concerns about safety on campus with Hillel professionals and counselors from the university’s counseling center.”

“We are also working closely with the Temple administration to ensure that the concerns of Jewish students at Temple are heard and met,” Nordlinger told JNS.org. “We value our partnership with the administration and are working with them to ensure a campus climate of civility where our students feel it is safe to celebrate their Jewish identities and show support for Israel.”

Elliott Hamilton—a student at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and a fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)—wrote in a recent op-ed for JNS.org that the Temple SJP incident came “as no surprise”to him.

“SJP historically bullies pro-Israel students and invites vehemently anti-Semitic speakers to campus under the pretense of ‘dialogue,’”he wrote.

In order to educate both students and staffers about the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and hate speech, the Brandeis Center has introduced a resource guide called the “Fact Sheet on the Elements of Anti-Semitic Discourse,” which is being distributed to campus officials across the U.S.

“We want university administrators to understand that much of the anti-Israel protest activity that we see on college campuses is really not just about politics. In fact, it has roots in ancient and medieval Jew-hatred,” said Marcus.

To that end, the guide builds on the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which confirms that “when criticism of Israel involves demonization, double standards, or delegitimization, there’s often something more involved than just politics,” Marcus explained.

“For example, when anti-Israel activists obsess about the ‘Israel Lobby,’ people need to understand that this notion is rooted in old-fashioned ideas about Jewish conspiratorial control,” he said.

The Hillel International umbrella, meanwhile, is working to strengthen its continued mission to help students develop their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel.

Amid the increased harassment and intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus, Hillel is “playing a very active role” in addressing the situation, said Hillel spokesperson Arielle Poleg. Every campus is different, with some facing more anti-Israel activity than others, but Hillel is generally working to create a secure environment on each campus in the aftermath of the Gaza conflict.

“A lot of Hillel directors have been working closely with campus police or campus security at their universities just to make sure their facilities are secure, that Jewish students know that they are safe,” Poleg told JNS.org. “Of course, students are being advised not to engage in any kind of physical confrontation and to always place physical safety first.”

As students return to campus, Hillel is engaging about 4,000 participants in Hillel-led Birthright trips to Israel this summer. During the Gaza conflict, Hillel worked with the Birthright organization to “adjust itineraries as needed to ensure the safety and security of all groups,” said Poleg.

Students who are active with Hillel on various campuses have also applied to receive Israel Solidarity Grants from the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a Hillel partner organization. ICC’s grants are a new initiative to help students, campus professionals, and faculty launch visible initiatives in support for Israel on their campuses. Checks are set to go out to the first 65 grantees for projects such as leadership dinners, rallies, statements signed by student leaders and published in campus newspapers, and more.

Jacob Baime, executive director of ICC, said he believes the “greatest threat of fallout from the current conflict” is the “potential of an erosion of confidence of pro-Israel students and other stakeholders on campus.” In that vein, the ICC Academic Network—comprised of 64 professors on 54 campuses—is “making a concerted effort now to organize private meetings with pro-Israel students in order to increase their confidence,” Baime told JNS.org.

Additionally, ICC is fostering collaboration among its pro-Israel partner groups on campus, including a recently held two-day retreat in St. Louis attended by 30 field professionals. A larger ICC retreat is planned for December in Orlando, Fla.

Groups like SJP “don’t do anything to bring people together, they don’t do anything to actually help the plight of the Palestinians,” Baime said.

“Not only do they not accept the notion of two states for two people, but if you ask a representative of SJP whether Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, they won’t acknowledge it–they won’t even answer the question generally,” he said.

When it comes to incidents such as the one that occurred at Temple University, “there’s absolutely no place for violence on a college campus, which is a place of open dialogue, discussion, and debate,” according to Baime. He said ICC encourages students “to try to de-escalate a situation like that,” and that the pro-Israel side is currently “exhibiting a tremendous amount of decorum, and we should continue that.”

The Israel education organization StandWithUs expressed a similar sentiment.

“Students need to be able to point the finger at anti-Semitism and bullying, and not accept it as commonplace,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS.org.

In August, a training conference for the 70 StandWithUs Emerson Fellows helped students learn how to respond to an upcoming anti-Israel initiative: the  Sept. 23 International Day of Action on College Campuses, organized by University of California, Berkeley professor Dr. Hatem Bazian and American Muslims for Palestine.

“We [also] talked [at the conference] about the track record of SJP at different campuses,” said Rothstein. While SJP has “the right to express their opinions” in accordance with free speech, in many cases “this is really about bullying,” she said.

StandWithUs defines the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism or intimidation based on the “three Ds”: double standards against Israel, demonization, and delegitimization. Defining hate speech is “not very difficult when someone calls you the ‘k’ word,” as was the case in the Temple SJP incident, Rothstein said.

This year, based on how Israel conducted Operation Protective Edge and how Hamas behaved during the conflict, “we hope to make it clear that Hamas is holding the Palestinian people back from their futures, they’re hurting [both] the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” added Rothstein.

CAMERA also held a summer conference for pro-Israel students, bringing together 53 participants in Boston for the media watchdog’s annual Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference.

This year’s conference included a new focus on the phenomenon of anti-Israel divestment resolutions, with CAMERA holding a mock student government debate to help pro-Israel advocates simulate a scenario they are likely to face on some campuses this year.

“I think practicing how to talk to the other side is extremely important,”said Hali Haber, a student at the University of Central Florida who participated in CAMERA’s mock divestment debate. “I hoped that I would take away the confidence it takes to advocate on campus, and I did.”

Due to the increasingly blatant anti-Semitism being displayed by anti-Israel campus groups, ICC’s Baime believes students need to be reminded of their identity beyond the Israel issue.

Though fostering Jewish identity is not ICC’s role as an organization, Baime said, “I actually think that given events around the world, we may need to have an even more basic conversation with Jewish students about being proud to be Jewish.

Alina D. Sharon is the managing editor of JNS.org. Her original piece appeared in the Jewish and Israeli News website JNS.org.