WJC 16th Plenary Assembly: “What is really happening on university campuses"
My freshman year at Stanford, I was driving to dinner with 3 friends. I was an eager first year, it was my first time ever being away from home, and I was so excited to make new friends and meet new people. In the middle of the drive to dinner, the boy sitting next to me asks, “Cami, I see you’re very involved in Jewish things, you go to Shabbat dinners at Hillel quite a bit… what is it about Jews that makes them just want power and control?” I don’t know if I was more upset with this question or the fact that the two boys sitting in the back seat, (one of them raised with one Jewish parent!), said absolutely nothing.
The question, “What is really happening on university campuses and how can we make a difference?” is extremely loaded, and if I as a graduating senior had the answers, I would be making a lot of money, that’s for sure. And I just want to preface by saying that I speak from my own experiences at Stanford and working heavily in Jewish life, which is most definitely limited and based in my own opinion.
Let’s start with the problems:
1. BDS, or the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel Movement, is terrifyingly gaining traction on college campuses. Through this movement, students propose and vote to not buy or invest in any Israeli companies with the rationale that Israel is occupying Palestinian land. In the past 16 years, 138 BDS resolutions have been proposed, 33% of which passed. Although these votes are largely symbolic, they delegitimize Israel amongst college students and greatly alienate Jewish and Israeli students.
2. Jewish students are assimilating at an alarmingly fast rate. There is an apathy from Jewish students regarding their own Jewish identity and their relationship to Israel. Jewish students understandably prioritize academics and organizations that can further themselves socially and in their careers. Between classes, parties, and all these different organizations that are thrown into your face, your Jewish identity becomes covered with so many things that it’s simply forgotten. This causes many Jewish students to assimilate to the point of not caring about maintaining a Jewish identity post-college. And this applies both to religious events (like attending a Shabbat dinner) or with their relationship to Israel.
3. 3. Jewish students shirk away from learning about Israel or exploring their Zionism for fear of negative perceptions from their peers. Because Israel has become such a political controversial issue on college campuses, many Jews dissociate in any way they can such that they will not be associated with the negative perception that’s held towards Israel. For fear of losing friends or being pegged as a “supporter,” many Jews choose to simply stay quiet or selfishly avoid learning about the country. And it’s not just Israel – anti-Semitic hate crimes are skyrocketing, making many Jews not feel comfortable expressing who they are. A Chabad in the University of Delaware was burned by an arsonist, the Vice President of the USC student body was forced to step down because her pro-Israel views made her have dual loyalties, posters praising Hitler were posted all throughout Arizona State University. In a college campus where so much growth and learning happens with discussion amongst people with differing backgrounds, religions, and opinions, when Jewish students and Zionists stay quiet, those without any exposure to Israel or Judaism fail to ever learn about what makes the Jewish people and the state of Israel so special.
4. Being progressive has become interwoven with being anti-Israel. At Stanford, we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut every year in our White Plaza, the center of campus in a very visible location. Every year, Students for Justice in Palestine put up an “Apartheid Wall” alongside us where people can write or draw – it’s always packed with progressive phrases that advocate for the victimized or less privileged. Right next to our free falafel and hummus distribution, they distribute flyers that talk about how much of an “apartheid” Israel is – about the innocent Palestinians that Israel is making suffer. Imagine having no idea about the conflict, seeing this celebration alongside this Apartheid Wall and getting this flyer. Of course, if I consider myself a good person and I care about the underprivileged, I have to hate Israel. College campuses no longer see the bipartisan unity towards Israel – for someone without prior knowledge of the conflict, who doesn’t have a Jewish upbringing and knows nothing about Israel, the events and posts around them force them to link being progressive with condemning the state of Israel. Seeing Israel as the perpetrator for Palestinian suffering blurs all else.
So what can we do?
First, education. Especially of non-Jewish students. For Israel, both of the conflict and not about it, but let’s use not about it as our entry point. Start Up Nation Mentorship, for example, is a program that pairs high-potential college students from across the world with Israeli executive mentors, giving non-Jewish students a glimpse into the start-up ecosystem of Israel in their field of interest.
There’s also such a close-minded views of the Jewish people – many go to college and have never even seen a Jew in their lifetimes. As Jews, we need to share our culture, our heritage, our traditions. I helped organize a trip of Stanford students to Buenos Aires to study Jewish life, for example, showing students that yes, you can be both Jewish and Latino.
Instead of shirking away from our Jewish identity, let us partake in our customs with pride and share these traditions with our non-Jewish peers. If Jewish events compete with the allure of other events on campus, if they involve friends and mentors, students may actually attend. Let’s have Shabbat dinners with friends to show our traditions, bake some babka for the dorm every once in a while, or share some of your extra challah. If we aren’t willing to be proud of our own Jewish heritage and want to share it with our peers, then we can’t be upset by ignorance we receive from those who have never had exposure to the Jewish people.
Let us share who we are with pride, bask in the beauty of our Jewish identity, and not cower to our enemies who are aiming at just that. It is only when we are proud of our own inner light that it can spread to those around us.
To read more about the session click here.