This campus is not on fire

Risa Lazaroff and Aaron Stein are conspicuously pro-Israel at American University. Courtesy American University Students for Israel
Risa Lazaroff and Aaron Stein are conspicuously pro-Israel at American University.
Courtesy American University Students for Israel

It’s important to figure out for yourself what you believe in, says college student Jack Kwatinetz.

When Kwatinetz, now 20, came to American University in Washington, the first Jewish group he joined was Ameripac, the campus branch of the lobbying group AIPAC. Later, he moved on to American University Students for Israel, which is unaffiliated with a national organization and focuses on cultural and consensus pro-Israel activities. In March, he also spent time at the liberal J Street’s national conference in Washington.

That’s the “beautiful thing about being at a university,” says Erica Mindel, 22, who belongs to an unaffiliated group at the University of Michigan called ILEAD, which sponsors discussions about Israel and the Middle East. “Students are really encouraged to check out and participate in multiple groups,” as it “pushes them out of their comfort zone” and helps them “figure out what their beliefs might be.”

Eventually, like choosing a major, they work out their Israel stance. Area college students say university life still provides them with the time and space to arrive at that stance, in spite of recent headlines about resolutions in student governments endorsing economic and academic boycotts of Israel, the phenomenon known as BDS; in-your-face run-ins with Palestinian supporters; fake eviction notices slipped under dorm room doors; and even a new phenomenon: public questioning of Jewish students seeking campus office about whether their Judaism compromises their ability to serve.

Indeed, on American University’s Quad on April 23, pro-Israel students donning Israel T-shirts and buttons and passing out fliers for Israelis Independence Day say that the biggest threat to the school’s Israel Expo, beside rain, was that the free food would run out.

There were no dramatic confrontations that day, and no security fears, and no one expected any.

“Fortunately, we don’t have a problem with BDS,” says Rachel Wolf, a junior and an activist with CAMERA, the national watchdog group whose mission is to counter what it sees as inaccuracies in perceptions about Israel. She offers a glossy booklet called “How to stop the boycott, divestment and sanctions attack on Israel.

“But I’m ready if we do.”

But how necessary is that readiness? If, as some Jewish campus professionals say, the majority of the thousands of American institutions of higher learning more closely resemble AU and the University of Maryland than the handful of schools where outrageous things have happened, then digging trenches and preparing for the long war against Israel’s detractors could spoil the chances of attracting the majority of Jewish students who are on the fence about Israel and Jewish commitment.

“One anti-Israel incident is too many, but my concern is that becomes the only story,” says Ari Israel, executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland which, like AU, had a public Israel celebration last month that went without incident. “Part of our work is to not be slinging mud — because most Jewish students are sitting on the sidelines and saying, ‘We don’t want to be a part of it.’”

Part of the concern over the threat on campus comes from underestimating the knowledge base of students. In other words, they are not blank slates waiting to be taken in by the first Israel-hater who comes along.

“A lot of us have a background in Israel,” says Kwatinetz of AU, a Jewish day school graduate.

“Students are extremely sophisticated,” Israel says, “and not only knowledgeable, but asking questions in the best interests of Israel.”

AU student Katie Corwin, 21, took her gap year in Israel. “The program wasn’t as nuanced as I would have liked,” she says, standing behind the table for J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution and opposes Israeli settlement expansion. Her gap-year group visited Hebron on the West Bank. “We heard the Israeli side, the settler side,” she says. “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t another side. I wanted to learn what that other side was.”

Welcome to college
During their recent graduation ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, high school students enrolled in an Israel advocacy training program sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington were shown a documentary about the BDS movement on campus.

Crossing the Line 2, which is making the rounds in the American Jewish community, details “the drastic rise in anti-Israel activities” on college campuses that have “crossed the line into anti-Semitism,” the film’s director, Shoshana Palatnik, explained that evening.

It shows, as only cinema can, the physical threat of angry pro-Hamas demonstrators. Viewers watch a scene unfurl as pro-Israel students stage a protest at the Ohio University Student Senate and are ordered arrested by Senate President Megan Marzek.

Marzek had begun the school year last fall by making a video during which she poured fake blood over her head to demonstrate “student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state.”

Crossing the Line is well-made and accurately reported, says Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. “But it takes a very serious problem and overgeneralizes. It gets you upset, and then what?”

Alyssa Katon was at Ohio University on a college tour the day the Jewish students were arrested. Her guide told her there was a student senate meeting going on. “I didn’t know they were arrested until I got home,” says Katon, 18, and participant in the advocacy program.

“O.U. was my top school,” she says. But she had a choice. “Once I found out that they were arrested, it wasn’t a situation that I wanted to put myself in.”

She says she sent a letter to the university president, asking what they were going to do about the arrests. “I never heard back.”

In the fall, Katon will attend Ohio State.

Alec Stone and his 17-year-old daughter Arianna were on a group tour of New York University when they experienced the wrath of anti-Israel protestors.

“Right in Washington Square, there were NYU students, some were Palestinian, shouting ‘Israel is an apartheid state!’” he says. “Welcome to college.”

It’s to be expected, he says. “If you’re going to go to a large university, you’re going to get different points of view. It’s good to stop and hear all those different points of view.”

Arianna Stone, a student at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, sees NYU as more than shouting protestors. “It wouldn’t discourage me from going to NYU,” she says. The Jewish community is big and friendly.”

Is it anti-Semitism?
Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, whose work focuses on the American Jewish community, sees the activism against Israel coming from two groups:  Muslim students and politically progressive students: “Both have strong complaints against Israel or Israeli policies or both.”

But it would be a mistake to see their activities as anti-Semitism, he says. “These are not anti-Jewish behaviors. Everything seems to be related to Israel.”

The Jewish community doesn’t seem to make that distinction he says. “As a minority, we tend to confirm opposition to a single category” and to associate it with the worst event in Jewish history.

But “this is not the 1930s,” he says.

He points out that the University of California at Los Angeles student council members who in March debated whether to confirm sophomore Rachel Beyda to the council’s Judicial Board apologized for doing so.

But Gary Berger, who chairs the Jewish Special Interest Group of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says it may not be 1933, but he knows anti-Semitism when he sees it.

“Anti-Israel has been a nice wrapping around being an anti-Semite,” he says. “When my students are getting eviction notices [in an anti-Israel protest], they’re a target because they’re Jewish. [The protestors] don’t care what their position is on Palestine.”

Still, university life is fluid, says Ari Israel of Maryland Hillel. He describes a close working relationship with university officials allowing them to discuss potential campus problems on a daily basis if necessary.

Having already weathered whatever dangers may have faced them on campus, students are preparing for what they hear is a tougher challenge out in the world.

Says Erica Mindel, “When I graduate, I know it will be much easier to stay in a bubble. I think this is a big problem. Everyone surrounds themselves with people who are in agreement, and no one is pushed to see other points of view.”

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