Do pro-Israel Jews feel comfortable on campus?


The school year has just begun, but already there have been notable skirmishes on American college campuses between supporters of Israel and backers of the Palestinian cause. At Ohio University, the student senate president caused a sensation with her ALS ice bucket challenge video, in which she poured blood-colored water over her head and urged viewers and the university “to cut all ties with other academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions.” When pro-Israel Jewish students staged a protest during a student senate meeting, they were arrested.

And at Temple University in Philadelphia, a Jewish student was reportedly punched in the face by a pro-Palestinian student near the Students for Justice in Palestine table after an argument between the two escalated. Abdel Aziz Jalil was charged with simple assault and recklessly endangering another person, according to court records.

Such drama has been absent at Washington-area universities. Still, some students see a hard year ahead of responding to anti-Israel activities following Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. “We are bracing [for] something totally different this year,” said American University student Rachel Wolf, who is also a fellow at the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA. “The anti-Israel sentiment at A.U. is very strong.”

Other A.U. students recalled a vigil for those who died in the Gaza war, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine. The pro-Israel students complained that only Palestinian fatalities were mourned, and their deaths were blamed entirely on Israel. Wolf said several of her professors refuse to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization and use the “land grab map” when teaching about Israel. The map purports to show the Palestinians’ loss of land in the face of Jewish expansion. Nevertheless, Jason Benkendorf, American University Hillel executive director, said he has not heard of any students who are apprehensive to hold pro-Israel events. “In terms of security for Israel and Jewish events, it’s a case-by-case scenario,” he said. There have been protests of pro-Israel event. Likewise, Jewish students have protested events they disagreed with, Benkendorf said.

In Maryland, college students have been following the news from other campuses, but say they feel lucky to attend school in an environment that is generally very supportive of Israel. “We’re very fortunate,” said Michael Krasna, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park. At U.Md., the student population is nearly one-quarter Jewish, according to 2013 Hillel figures. “There’s not a lot [of student bodies] like this.” Krasna, who worked at a table at the U.Md., Hillel’s recent new-student barbecue, described the College Park campus as “peaceful” and largely “apolitical.” He said he was shocked to hear about some of the things that have been happening on other campuses around the country.

Krasna said he is confident in U.Md.’s pro-Israel leaning – the president of the university attended last year’s Hillel welcome barbecue and gave an impassioned pro-Israel talk – but he isn’t ruling out the possibility that things could be different this year, given this summer’s conflict in Gaza. Amna Farooqi, a junior, has noticed one difference this school year. “If anything, more people are definitely interested,” she said.

Farooqi manned the J Street U table at Hillel’s barbeque. She said the group – which is affiliated with the national J Street organization that recently failed to gain membership to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations over charges that it was not sufficiently pro-Israel – plans to hold debriefing events where students can feel comfortable asking questions and learning about the conflict. “A lot of people have questions,” she said. “We want to give people that space.” “I think most people want to learn,” added Mordy Labaton, a senior and a member of J Street U. Labaton and Farooqi both attended U.Md.’s recent Israel Studies-sponsored “An Open Forum on the War in Gaza” with high expectations for the discussion. But when the event turned into more of a shouting match than a dialogue, both found themselves a little discouraged. “We can’t just advocate for one side here and one side there,” said Labaton of the need for productive discussions between the opposing sides. “What direction do we want to move in? The same direction again or forge a new path?”

Senior Andrew Podob said he has watched some of the anti-Israel advocacy on the Rutgers University campus near his New Jersey hometown, but has never noticed anything similar in his three years at Maryland. In fact, he took a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a few semesters ago with students from different backgrounds and political opinions and said most people would be shocked at how much people on each side actually agreed on. “It’s surprisingly very civil,” he said of the discussion that the class elicits, adding that students at U.Md. seem much more willing to listen to each other than the older generations and are more tolerant than the media often portrays. “But I think that’s the exception, not the norm,” he said of the experience at Maryland.

Heather Norris, a staff reporter for WJW’s sister publication the Baltimore Jewish Times, contributed to this article.

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