NEW YORK — On Rebecca T. Stern’s to-do list when she returned to campus this fall was reviewing her class schedule, buying last minute school supplies and scrolling through the Students for Justice in Palestine Facebook page.
As president of an Israel advocacy group called TorchPAC, the New York University communications major makes it her business to see what rhetoric might be making the rounds and whether her club needs to respond. One item jumped out: the “Disorientation Guide for the Corporate University.”
The 68-page document, disseminated primarily as a PDF, mentions Israel 55 times, more than the words “alt-right,” “fascism,” and “white supremacy” combined. It also calls Israel as a “white supremacist” state.
“It was pretty covert. It bashes the university, so they don’t want the administration to get their hands on it,” the junior said over coffee and tea at a nearby café.
Welcome to fall semester.
The guide was released at other campuses across the country, including Tufts University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The Tufts guide defined Tufts Hillel as “an organization that supports a white supremacist state,” thereby singling out the campus’ main Jewish organization as a pariah. And at UIUC, when Students for Justice in Palestine promoted a protest “Smashing Fascism: Radical Resistance Against White Supremacy,” they announced, “[t]here is no room for fascists, white supremacists, or Zionists at UIUC.”
Last spring Brandeis University released a survey of 3,199 Jewish students and recent graduates from 100 universities nationwide. A quarter of the respondents said they had been blamed for actions of Israel. Nearly 75 percent reported being exposed to at least one anti-Semitic statement in the previous year, according to the study.
As the academic year gets underway students across the country face hostility from the alt-right and neo-Nazis. Posters promoting an allegedly white supremacist group called Identity Evropa were taped to walls in schools as geographically diverse as Arizona State University and NYU. The extreme left, as seen in the Disorientation Guide, is using similar tactics.
Given the increasingly fraught campus environment, it can be difficult for students to show their enduring, if sometimes complicated, love for Israel. Some join StandWithUs, others join J Street. Some become deeply involved in Hillel, others prefer stay away from associations all together.
For Stern, who grew up outside of Baltimore, Maryland, it was love at first sight when she stepped off the airplane at Ben-Gurion Airport nearly seven years ago when her parents took her to Israel on a two-week trip for her bat mitzvah.
“Everyone told me, ‘When you step off the plane you will feel like you’re home.’ I was very skeptical of that. That’s a high expectation,” Stern said. “It was exactly as they described it. They were right. I did feel at home. I cried before I left. It was that moving.”
She carried back with her a strong affinity for Israel.
That, coupled with her love of politics, prompted her to get involved with TorchPAC when she started at NYU. According to the student group’s Facebook page its leadership organizes meetings with Congress members, supports the election of pro-Israel Congressional candidates and does outreach with other student leaders at NYU.
Members fall across the political spectrum, Stern said.
“We are a forum for everybody on campus. We have students from the left and the right. We want to talk to people about the issue and find common ground,” she said.
Keeping it close to the vest
Most incoming students fall somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum when they arrive on campus. That was certainly the case for Sloan Silberman.
Now a senior at Bard College in upstate New York, Silberman grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. He never felt obliged to explain why he supports Israel. He just did. Then came freshman year.
It was shortly after the 2014 Gaza war. Silberman recalled walking into the student center. Two women sat behind a desk raising money for Palestinian relief for West Bank and Gaza. They asked him to donate.
“I said ‘No, that it’s not something I would support.’ And we got into a very heated argument about the root causes and never did I feel so divided from someone,” he said.
Since that episode his support for and love of the country has only increased, partly because of the campus environment and partly because of the considerable time he has spent in Israel. He’s traveled for several weeks at a time as well as participating in an internship. He plans to make aliyah after graduation.
Nevertheless Silberman mostly keeps his attachment to Israel under the radar.
“For the most part I’m definitely more comfortable not talking about it. My opinion is an unpopular opinion here. I’m a vocal advocate when I need to be, but the campus tries to be very intellectual and the topic comes up more often than I think it should. The liberal agenda on campus and various clubs and organizations frequently make negative commentary about Israel and the settlements,” he said.
Hen Mazzig, who lives in Tel Aviv, understands exactly what Silberman is talking about. He toured nearly 300 campuses in North America last year to talk about Israel.
He was struck by the way students who support Israel are ostracized and attacked on campus.
“What I’m seeing with Jewish students is that no longer can you just be Jewish. Being Jewish on campus means you have to take a stand about Israel. I see LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, feminism — all these issues of the left which bill themselves as inclusive — as not so inclusive,” Mazzig said.
“They want Jewish students to choose and check a box for or against Israel and if for Israel, then they don’t want you. It’s heartbreaking to hear this from students and sometimes I don’t know what to say,” he said.
Indeed it’s not uncommon on campuses for Jewish students to hear Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza is directly responsible for many social injustices including police shootings against African Americans and Islamaphobia, said Prof. Jarrod Tanny, an associate professor and Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Students are told that only through wiping out Israel can marginalized communities realize equality.
“Those students who profess a love for Israel — the idea of it, its beaches, its food, whatever — are being told in vitriolic terms that they have no place. They are boycotted, shouted down and ostracized,” Tanny said. “It’s anti-Semitic to put Jewish students through a Zionist litmus test. The idea that you can’t be in favor of gay rights and support Israel, that you can’t be in favor of women’s rights and support Israel? That’s absurd.”
Adah Forer is a junior at University of California Berkeley. Born in Israel, Forer moved to California when she was nine. With most of her family still in Israel the country “has always been a part of me.”
But that’s not why she became involved with Tikvah, a grassroots organization unique to Berkeley, which works to educate other students about Zionism. Last year she became an Emerson fellow with StandWithUs in part because of her campus experience.
One reason she became involved was because of the pushback Tanny described.
“If we try to speak with Black Students’ Union or Latino students — even the anti-Trump groups — Israel will come up even if they know nothing about it. That pushes a lot of Jewish students away from getting involved. In fact it’s one of the hardest groups to reach. Many within the Jewish community don’t want to take sides, they don’t want to be visibly Jewish or supportive of Israel,” she said.
The first rule of Israel support
For some students the first rule of being pro-Israel is to not call it pro-Israel.
“I think ‘pro-Israel’ is a little bit of a difficult term. It’s black and white, like Zionism or anti-Zionism. Part of the problem is the issue has become reduced to single words. Israel is a buzzword. Zionism is a buzzword. Palestine is a buzzword. So on a liberal college campuses if you use those words you’re a target,” said Sonya Levine, a recent Wesleyan University graduate.
The Wesleyan student body is about 30% Jewish. Its Hillel affiliate was one of the first to declare itself an “Open Hillel,” and is considered pluralistic.
Levine went to Hebrew day school through middle school, went to Camp Ramah and spent six weeks in Israel on a camp trip. She has spent a lot of time thinking about what the term “pro-Israel” means. For her, supporting Israel on campus means being able to criticize it, just as she does the United States.
For others, being pro-Israel means supporting and appreciating the diaspora Jewish communities. And for some it means critiquing Israel’s leaders and its policies or helping work toward a shared society where Israelis and Palestinians are treated fairly and are given equal opportunities.
“The reason we critique Israel is because we care about it. I feel a duty to stand up for it. As a Jewish person most people will ask ‘what are your views on Israel?’ I don’t feel it’s unfair for people to ask me because I have been involved,” Levine said.
Getting involved is the key, agreed TorchPAC’s Stern.
During her time at NYU Stern said in spite of things like the Disorientation Guide, she’s never felt unsafe or restrained from expressing her Jewish identity or her pro-Israel views. On the contrary, Stern said most of her fellow students are interested in learning about new cultures and religions.
“It’s important for people to know the pro-Israel community here is strong,” Stern said. “You don’t see a lot of that in the news. There are issues but we are strong individuals working against things when they arise.”