Israel on campus: A learning experience

Israel on campus: A learning experience

All's quiet on the home front

Hillel members at Ramapo College stand in front of the group’s sukkah.

The situation on college campuses in New Jersey is not so bad, according to Jewish professionals working with college students here.

Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel at UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey for the past eight years, said he has not heard of any significant instances of anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic incidents at the four schools served by his group: Bergen Community College in Paramus, Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Ramapo College in Mahwah, and William Paterson University in Wayne.

Allen, who estimates that there are about 2,000 Jewish students at these four campuses, said that he reaches about 500 students through Hillel, although, he noted, the numbers may vary from year to year.

“We have a peaceful relationship with the Muslim clubs” on each campus, he said. “We try to dialogue.”

While Hillel is one of the larger clubs on each campus, said Allen, the Muslim clubs tend to vary in size, with the largest club at BCC. At least once each semester, Allen organizes an intergroup dialogue, although sometimes, he said, the event is organized jointly or spearheaded by the Muslim group.

“We’ve discussed things like the cultural and religious similarities between Judaism and Islam,” he said, adding that he feels uniquely qualified to lead such discussions because of his “personal story.” Allen’s parents, Sephardic Jews, were driven out of their home in Egypt before the Six Day War, when Jews were being rounded up and put into prison camps as Israeli-Egypt tensions rose.

“None of the Palestinian students know that 850,000 Middle Eastern Jews were expelled” from their homes, said Allen, adding that, until these meetings, some of the Muslim youths had never spoken with Orthodox Jews or Israelis.

“We stay away from politics,” he said. “We don’t want to get into a fight. Our students feel secure; they can walk around openly Jewish, not afraid,” he said. “We don’t want to cultivate a situation where that will no longer be possible.”

Still, said Allen, should the situation change, “we’re ready to go.” He pointed out that in 2003, at the height of the second intifada, Hillel made a copy of the film “Relentless” available to every student who came to Hillel gatherings, together with Israel advocacy materials from the group Stand With Us. Hillel also brought in speakers and held advocacy training seminars.

“We did what we had to do,” he said. “But we’re not interested in doing that right now. We’re not going to throw the first stone.”

Allen said he’s “very aware” of what’s happening on other campuses throughout the country and acknowledged that some of what he hears is “quite ugly.” But, he said, he is guided by the actions of the patriarch Jacob, who took three steps in preparing to meet his brother Esau, whom he had wronged as a young man.

Students Laura Silverman and Ikey Cohen at this year’s Rutgers Hillel Purim carnival.

“First, he prepared to give him presents, to make peace,” said Allen. “Then he prayed. Then he prepared for war.”

“If we’re under threat, we will mobilize,” he said. But right now, “we want to create an atmosphere where students don’t feel threatened.”

Allen noted that students are constantly taught about Israel, and Israel-related programming is held once every few weeks.

“Students are aware of what’s happening, but they don’t see anything to be gained from confronting Arab students on campus,” he said. He added that were anti-Semitic incidents to occur on any of the four campuses, he would expect the full cooperation of each school’s administration.

“I have a close relationship with the presidents” of each of the colleges, he said. “I don’t think they will tolerate any act of anti-Semitism.”

Allen noted, however, that under the umbrella of freedom of speech, there is only so much a school can do.

“But we have the right to put forth our own points of view,” he said.

“We’ve worked so hard” to get where we are now, said Allen, stressing that the group’s policy is to be informed and active but not to “create a negative situation on campus.”

But should one arise, he repeated, Hillel will be “ready to go.”

Etzion Neuer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, New Jersey, recalls that in 2000, major Jewish organizations were caught by surprise when campuses heated up.

“Student were ill-prepared,” he said.

That, however, has changed. Today, he said, the community enjoys a great deal of success in providing resources to campus organizations as well as to individual students who ask for help.

“We’ve got an active relationship with students,” he said. “They are the ones who go to classes, who are active and engaged. We give them the resources so they can be the standard-bearers, making the case for Israel.”

According to Neuer, students cannot always differentiate between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic behavior. This is true “especially if the student has grown up with a strong Jewish background and has never been faced with something like this before.”

In that case, he said, he will sit down and explain to the student the difference between the two kinds of actions or speech.

Whatever the determination, “it may still be emotionally or psychologically offensive,” he said, “but it changes the argument” and also the needed response.

Neuer said that over the last 10 years, anti-Israel feeling has been “less about angry mobs” and more about things like “panel discussions accusing Israel of atrocities.”

“It’s done in an academic framework,” he said, “like accusing Israel of apartheid.”

Neuer said that labeling Israel as an apartheid state is enjoying some success “and is prolific now.” There are also still attempts to label Israelis as Nazis, “a constant theme,” he said. In addition, there are ongoing attempts to get colleges and universities to divest their holdings in Israel.

While this generally has not been successful, he said, “the process of attempting this is in itself troublesome, dragging Israel’s name through the mud.”

Neuer said that. on the whole, anti-Israel sentiment has been expressed by accusing Israel of war crimes, especially post-Gaza. He said the “the key response is to be proactive” and he encourages students to make a positive case for Israel rather than waiting to respond to accusations.

“When you move first with positive programming, you get to set the agenda,” he said.

The ADL leader noted that on March 26, his group is bringing Daniel Taub, principal deputy legal adviser of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to speak at Rutgers in New Brunswick, in a program sponsored by Hillel and open to the public. Taub, he said, will make the case for Israel’s Gaza incursion and address the legal arguments against the Jewish state, particularly the accusations of human rights violations.

“You can’t be complacent,” said Neuer. “The Palestinians are trying to portray Israel as critically as possible. We should prepare every incoming crop of students.”

FDU Hillel students practice Hebrew calligraphy.

The most effective technique, he said, is to reach Jewish students while they are still in high school. He said he has spoken at several Jewish high schools and would like to receive more invitations to address Jewish students.

“[High school students] have a fuzzy image of college,” he said. “We have to prepare them for some of the arguments they will face.”

Neuer said they have to know “some kind of rhetoric and that they won’t be alone.” He also encourages them to read what he calls “the narratives” of those who hold opposite views.

According to Andrew Getraer – Rutgers Hillel executive director for the past eight years – the campus has not had any significant anti-Israel activity since 2004, when his group sponsored its “Israel Inspires” campaign,

The program consisted of a year-long series of pro-Israel activities that showcased Israel’s land and culture beyond the scope of politics and conflict, and included the participation of groups such as federations, Hadassah, and the ADL.

Rutgers has 5,000 Jewish students, the country’s third-largest Jewish student body. Half of those students are connected with Hillel in some way during the school year, said Getraer, who echoed Neuer’s assessment that New Jersey campuses have not seen a significant number of anti-Israel activities. For example, unlike other campuses around the country, Rutgers did not have an Israel Apartheid Week.

On the whole, he said, “we’re not dealing with what other campuses are dealing with.”

This year, however, Getraer has seen a “slight uptick” in anti-Israel sentiment in the months following the Gaza incursion. For example, he said, the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies brought “an anti-Israel activist,” Phyllis Bennis, to speak on campus. Bennis serves on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation.

In a talk Getraer described as “very biased,” the speaker not only blasted Israel, blaming the country for 60 years of oppression in the Middle East, but “mocked” the Jewish students who asked questions following her presentation.

“It was the first time I’ve seen anything like that [sponsored by] a department,” said Getraer.

The university also was the site of a vigil for the victims of Gaza, sponsored by a consortium of groups including the Muslim Students Association and Baka, Students United for Middle Eastern Justice, “a consortium of Middle Eastern groups that don’t like Israel,” said Getraer.

While, he said, he was “very concerned” about the vigil, it proved to be “fairly quiet and respectful.” And while there was some anti-Israel rhetoric, it came mostly from a group called Jews Against the Occupation, said Getraer, pointing out that many of its members are not students.

Of some concern, he said, are reports he received from students that two or three professors have passed around anti-Israel materials or made anti-Israel comments in their classes.

But Getraer noted that “there is little the school’s administration can do about things that take place within the confines of a classroom.” Unless it is something “extraordinary,” he said – like a sexual or racial slur – there is academic freedom in the classroom “and the teacher has free rein.”

On the whole, said Getraer, Jewish students at Rutgers feel free to display their Jewishness, and there are 300 to 400 observant Jewish students on campus.

Interestingly, he added, there appear to be “increasing numbers of students who are ambivalent about Israel,” resulting in fewer student-driven political advocacy events than in the past.

While students continue to organize and attend cultural programs, “even those with a strong Jewish identity are ambivalent about Israel,” he said.

Like Hillel’s Allen and the ADL’s Neuer, Getraer is not complacent about the position of Jewish students on campus.

“We’re very much keeping our ear to the ground,” he said. While things are better than expected right now, “with 3,000 Muslims on campus – who, at the moment, are not that active – things can eventually change.”

How to advocate for Israel
The Anti-Defamation League has compiled a list of resources responding to anti-Israel programming on campus.

“¢ “Fighting Back: A Handbook for Responding to Anti-Israel Rallies on College and University Campuses.” Fighting Back offers strategic responses to addressing demonstrations by looking at issues of free speech. It includes:

“Building an Effective Response Strategy”

“Free Speech at Rallies and Protests”

“Offensive Literature and Symbolic Speech”

“Free Speech and the Campus Media”

The full manual can be downloaded at

“¢ “Israel’s Operation in Gaza: Frequently Asked Questions”

“¢ “Israel: A Guide for Activists”

“¢ Pro Israel Posters: “Israel Strikes Back Against Hamas” and “Only in Israel” These posters were prepared with a campus/progressive audience in mind, and highlight the rights and freedoms in Israel.

“¢ Jewish Institutional Security

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