WALTHAM, Massachusetts — When Isaac Graber set up a table during a Brandeis University club fair to highlight Israel’s latest achievements in sustainability and medicine, he was braced for trouble.
As a transfer student, the president of the Brandeis Israel Political Action Committee (BIPAC) had been warned that the university was a hotbed of toxicity and hostility for pro-Israel students.
After all, several recent incidents on campus ended up making national news. In 2017 swastikas were found drawn on message boards in Brandeis University residences; in 2015 a Brandeis student used her personal Twitter account to call for an American intifada; and in 2014 Brandeis rescinded an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of radical Islam and advocate of Muslim women’s rights.
Consequently a perception took hold that Brandeis shuns pro-Israel students and quashes spirited debate.
“When I told people at Washington University I was transferring here, I heard it was anti-Israel, that it was hard to be pro-Israel,” said Graber, who is in his senior year. “I found out that it’s not. It’s a very welcoming place, but I think Brandeis is put in the spotlight a lot. At other schools where something happens they don’t get the same attention.”
Interviews with students, faculty and the university president indicate the issue isn’t one of toxicity toward Israel — rather, vigorous debate about Israeli politics has become borderline taboo.
Indeed, many students — even politically active ones — said they self-censor rather than risk offending other students. And while the majority spoke on the record about their experiences, several undergrads critical of the institution asked to remain anonymous because they were worried about backlash from other students.
As sophomore Emma Greszes, the 2018-19 StandWithUs Emerson Fellow and vice president of Brandeis Judges for Israel explained, “there are non-Israel related campus clubs that don’t want to involve themselves because they don’t want to offend anyone or wade into the controversy.”
“The Brandeis constitution is about ‘inclusion,’ and they want to keep the status quo intact. For example, the school newspaper will sometimes not publish pro-or-con articles regarding Israel-Palestine so as not to take sides,” she said.
A lot of the perception that the campus doesn’t welcome overtly pro-Israel students has to do with the school’s history, said Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History.
An estimated 40 percent of the student body is Jewish and there is Hebrew in the logo. The school is also named for Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, and a proponent of free speech and key figure in American Zionism.
Because of that, there is a perception the school is, or should be, more vocally pro-Israel than other schools, said Sarna.
“What happens on our campus is if one or two students come out in favor of BDS than it becomes a man bites dog story and gets amplified. When a few students put up a banner that supports BDS its amplified and there is a distortion. Yes, there have been some incidents but they get outsized attention,” Sarna said.
A number of recent national studies showed high levels of anti-Semitism on US college campuses. This led the Brandeis Steinhardt Social Research Institute to investigate further.
In 2017 it issued “The Limits of Hostility: Students Report on Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Sentiment at Four US Universities.”
The four US universities were Brandeis, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
The report drew on survey data collected in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years from both Jewish and non-Jewish students. Among its key findings were that support for BDS on the four campuses is rare.
In addition, the report says, “students were more likely to agree that there was a hostile environment toward Israel on their campus, than that there was a hostile environment toward Jews, but most students still disagreed with the former.”
The exception was at University of Michigan, where just over half of Jewish students agreed to any extent that the school had a hostile environment toward Israel. Recently two professors at University of Michigan refused to write letters of recommendation for Jewish students seeking to study in Israel.
A majority of Jewish students at all four universities reported hearing “hostile remarks toward Israel” from other students, faculty, staff and administration.
Statements such as “Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to America” were heard by 7% of Brandeis students, compared with 4% of students at University of Michigan, 4% at Penn and 5% at Harvard.
Statements such as Israelis behave “like Nazis” towards Palestinians were heard by 8% of students at Penn, 1% at Michigan, 7% at Harvard and 7% at Brandeis, according to the report.
Certainly the situation at Brandeis doesn’t compare with schools such as CUNY Brooklyn and many in the University of California system that were considered “hot spots” of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hostility, according to the report.
“Israeli Zionists have never felt it to be a toxic environment,” said Chen Arad, an Israeli-American who spent both his undergraduate and graduate years at Brandeis and founded bVIEW, Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World.
“I have never felt that it was remotely close to what you hear at other schools, like those in the UC system. The idea of Brandeis as toxic for pro-Israel students is ludicrous. But because it’s Brandeis it gets the attention,” Arad said.
However, Arad agreed undergraduate students tended to stick with like-minded peers. That’s part of the reason he founded bVIEW — a student group whose stated mission is “bringing students with diverse perspectives together” and “depolarizing campus conversations about Israel.”
Other Jewish organizations on campus range from the political, such as BIPAC and JStreet, to cultural, such as the Jewish Feminist Association at Brandeis.
“We thought there was potential for better conversation, even if we had differing views. We wanted to hear out the other side,” Arad said. However, bVIEW appears to be the exception to the rule.
While there is a plethora of Jewish organizations, they typically only get together for cultural events such as “Shakshuka in the Sukkah,” which Brandeis Judges for Israel co-sponsored with BIPAC, J Street U, Brandeis Hillel, Yachad and Mishelanu.
Next on bVIEW’s agenda is “Succulent Planting – Israel’s Ecology,” which it will co-host with Brandeis Hillel, Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Jewish National Fund.
Yet, while the clubs might gather for cultural events, they avoid politics, and so there is little chance for meaningful debate and dialogue, said one Brandeis junior speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are certainly a lot of preconceived notions about Brandeis. I had a lot of people warning me about the climate and I expected it to be highly politically charged. It’s not quite like that. There is always a group for you to be a part of — it’s just the groups don’t mix,” she said.
The idea that students don’t want to upset anyone might be a product of the institution’s goal of making sure all students feel at home, Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz said.
“We don’t prevent debate or discussion. We are not a shul [synagogue], we are a university. But because it’s such a warm welcoming environment, some students self-censor so they don’t offend anyone,” Liebowitz said.
Some of this sidestepping might come from a sort of “let it be” atmosphere, said Ilana Bauman, a senior majoring in biology and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.
“Our campus community has a very ‘you-do-you’ mentality, in which people truly want to see and get to know people for who they are — people genuinely want to support each other in being themselves. My experience here has been one of using diversity, both within the Jewish community and in terms of religion at large, to build community,” said Bauman.
Still Bauman, who described herself as “very outwardly and publicly Zionistic and pro-Israel,” said she generally prefers not to initiate politically driven conversations.
“My experience has been that students who want to engage in political discussion feel as though they are open and welcome to do so, and students who prefer to stay out of these conversations are very much able to do so as well,” she said.
That’s not quite the experience of one Brandeis alumna who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The campus atmosphere is definitely toxic for internal growth as it does not promote peaceful discourse. There is no room for experimentation and it is upsetting that I was never given the opportunity to ask the proper, naive questions for fear of running red and embarrassing myself,” said the alumna.
Additionally, after the Twitter incident in which a Brandeis student called for an American intifada, students who fell outside the liberal spectrum — regardless of the issue — were harshly criticized, said the anonymous alumna, who was involved in Hillel during her undergraduate studies.
Prof. Len Saxe, Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Social Policy, believes things have vastly improved since Liebowitz became president. He does understand, though, that some students may feel stifled.
“The more conservative you are, perhaps the more difficult you feel it is to express your view. But over the past two years things have gotten significantly better,” Saxe said.
“However, I’ll tell you a little secret,” he said. “What students care about most is themselves. They are worried about mental health issues, depression, loneliness, the quality of the food, parking — Israel isn’t even on their radar.”