Months ago I spent Shabbat with the Binghamton University KESHER group, where, in addition to services, dinner at the local Hillel, a song session, and havdallah, the students participated in the hot-topic program: “Dealing with anti-Israel Sentiment on Campus.”
Although their school is relatively pluralistic and open-minded, with a rather large Jewish population, all of the student participants said they’d encountered anti-Israel activity on campus. Moreover, a few of the students reported, and everyone else agreed, that it is common for Jewish students to be automatically identified with—and blamed for—Israel and its actions, even if they themselves have actually little or no connection to Israel. One of the students added that this situation is especially difficult and confusing for him, because although he often finds himself criticizing Israel’s policies and actions, he still feels a strong connection with Israel.
Such predicaments can be found at campuses across North America.
While I believe no one has a complete answer to these concerns, I did suggest to the Binghamton students—and would suggest to you—these first steps to deal with the issues:
Step 1: Become Informed
As is true with any passionately debated issue, a lot of disinformation surrounds the subject of Israel’s actions—especially on campus, where students are bombarded by various organizations with bits of information that together conjure a twisted, out of context picture of a very complicated situation.
In the face of ignorance, be proactive: look for ways to better understand the reality and also the accusations thrown against Israel. A good start is to read one of the top Israeli newspapers, such as Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post, for fact-based news about Israel as well as op-ed articles offering conflicting left- and right-wing views.
Step 2: Accept Healthy Criticism
In truth, there is nothing wrong with some healthy judgment and criticism. An engaged and devoted Jewish student should not defend Israel “right or wrong,” but form his/her own opinions—critical as well as supportive. As someone who considers himself a patriotic and devoted Israeli, hardly a day goes by when I do not criticize my own government—just like many Americans criticize theirs.
Recognizing that support of Israel should never be blind, and that by engaging with Israel we can strive to make it a better place, the Jewish Agency for Israel has launched a comprehensive website that addresses Israel’s complexities from a place of love. You’ll discover tough questions on a variety of Israeli discussion topics and help with finding the answers—as well as cultural ways to engage with Israel: music, videos, and more.
Step 3: Begin Dialogue with Palestinian Groups
This last step is perhaps most important. Although it is amazingly challenging, requiring energy and devotion, I believe it is the duty of Jewish students and Israel supporters on campus to do all they can to try to dialogue with campus Palestinian and Arab groups.
Not all Arabs and Palestinian campus groups are dedicated to Israel bashing. Some, such as the Muslim Student Association (MSA), are primarily concerned with advancing their members’ religious experiences, the same way Hillel does with Jewish students on campus. Moreover, pro-Israel and pro-Arab students have engaged in dialogue at a number of schools, including McGill University, where a joint Hillel–MSA Passover seder took place a few years ago.
Students interested in dialogue should find out whether an open-minded organization representing the other side exists at their school and, if so, try to approach it, either individually or through a Jewish organization on campus. Accept that the other side is likely to have different perspectives. Show up with an open mind; you’re seeking cooperation through pluralism. And don’t be surprised if the first steps are uncomfortable and awkward for both sides.
Through engaging in joint activities that represent true cultural exchange, such as celebrating each other’s holidays and/or discussing issues of disagreement, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students can support their respective causes while setting an example for reconciliation and peace.
—Hanan Cidor, URJ college and programs alumni shaliach