In recent years, Jewish students on college campuses across the country have perceived a hostile atmosphere that, in most instances, is linked to constitutionally protected expressions of extreme anti-Israel sentiment. Other than steering students away from highly politicized campuses, this situation is unavoidable. However, as a community, we should do a better job of providing those students with the necessary tools to effectively confront these challenges.
Consider the findings of a recent survey of Jewish undergraduate students that focused on 50 campuses where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment were deemed to be “especially acute,” specifically the following note:
“A significant minority of Jewish undergraduates are uncomfortable expressing their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they feel they do not know enough to enter the conversation.” Moreover, the team of researchers at the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University observed that while public discussion has focused on legislative remedies for campus anti-Israel hostility, “more emphasis needs to be placed on educational strategies.”
Also, the study found it notable that in contrast to most other institutions, at Rutgers University — as well as the universities of Wisconsin and Illinois — “hostility toward Jews and antisemitic harassment are relatively high but do not seem to be highly connected to criticism of Israel. At these schools, more traditional antisemitic stereotypes and tropes, rather than criticism of Israel’s politics, seem to be driving the perceived hostility toward Jews.”
I discussed the survey’s findings with various members of the Jewish community and found several different takes. Linda Scherzer, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Community Relations Committee, wholeheartedly endorsed the survey’s judgment about placing greater emphasis on education.
“We have a generation of young people who have at best a shallow understanding of Israeli history, even very current events.” She said that many students arrive at college never having encountered critical views of Israel. “It’s a shock. They don’t have the right language to make Israel’s case effectively.”
Evan Gottesman of East Brunswick, a senior at Rutgers and Israel chair of the Rutgers Hillel Student Board, doesn’t agree that anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism are pervasive at the school, but acknowledges that they do exist among the radical left political activist groups.
He said that a level of ignorance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is problematic for the Jewish students who find themselves on the defensive. His committee has been trying to address the issue through a variety of programs. One of them, Israel Coffee Breaks, offers regular gatherings where students are encouraged to explore political issues in an open and supportive environment. But these, said Gottesman, attract only a tiny fraction of the thousands of Jewish students at Rutgers. He was skeptical about the survey’s finding that at Rutgers there was little connection between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. “The classical anti-Semitic tropes only get traction,” he asserted, “because the Israel issue triggers a conversation about money and excessive influence.”
What are we to do? Among those stepping up, The Jewish Week (NJJN’s parent publication) launched “Write On for Israel,” a two-year project intended to provide students, starting from 11th grade, with the necessary training and self-confidence to confront Israel’s detractors on college campuses. In the last 13 years, more than 600 Jewish high school students from the New York area have participated; the Greater MetroWest CRC has sent 10 students through the program in each of the last five years.
Adam Shapiro, head of school at Golda Och Academy in West Orange echoed the survey’s findings that there is a knowledge gap inhibiting Jewish students from engaging on Israel’s political issues. He said that there are two ways we help young Jews relate to Israel: One is “experiential,” creating love of and bonding with the land and people of Israel. The other is formal education, not propaganda or advocacy, but straightforward facts.
“We tend to do a better job with the former, whereas the latter requires much more energy and thought, and is thus constantly developing,” Shapiro said. And, he added, the process must start well before youngsters get to high school.
Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, endorsed the survey’s call for a stronger emphasis on Israel education. But he pointed out that there is far less participation today in the traditional channels of Jewish education, such as day schools and religious schools, and urged the community to look for creative ways to reach out and engage young people, including using social media, rather than waiting for them to walk through our doors.
None of this is to imply that our Jewish community is sitting on its hands. Federations, synagogues, AIPAC, StandWithUs, The David Project, and the Chicago-based iCenter have all invested much effort to enhance Israel education. The Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education has done yeoman’s work in training educators how to teach about modern Israel and its challenges. [Full disclosure: Both Shapiro and I are members of CIE’s board.] Hillel International has devoted significant resources to engagement and education on campuses. And there are others doing the same.
Certainly, the institutional efforts are of great value. But, at the end of the day, the essential motivation — the core commitment to connecting our younger generation to Israel and encouraging them to learn more about the Jewish state — must begin at home. One colleague suggested that there may be an unintended “Birthright effect,” that parents may have come to believe that their children’s’ participation in the highly successful program that has funded free trips to Israel for hundreds of thousands is sufficient to create an informed relationship and bond with their homeland.
This would be a mistake. It is incumbent on us to start our children on a meaningful encounter with Israel as an integral part of their Jewish journey much earlier and more intensively. After all, they won’t be able to defend Israel if we don’t teach them how, and they won’t try if they don’t care.