By Judy Fleischer
Three years ago, Ofir Dayan, an Israeli student at Columbia University, was on her way to a math class. It was her first semester at Columbia and she ran into a Jewish American friend who was leaving the building as she was entering. The two exchanged greetings and small talk in Hebrew.
The next thing Ms. Dayan knew, a woman sitting on a bench near the door, who had heard the two friends speaking in Hebrew, called out the words “baby killers.”
Ms. Dayan tried to ignore her, but the young woman continued to berate her, screaming at her to “Stop killing Muslim babies.”
Ms. Dayan asked, “Do I know you?” The young woman’s response: “No, but you’re Israeli. You kill Muslim babies.”
Adding insult to injury, said Ms. Dayan, the security guard sitting nearby did and said nothing.
Scenes like that have become all too familiar for Jewish students on American college and university campuses. As anti-Zionist organizations get increasingly vocal in their denunciation of Israel, they are more and more using tactics including harassment, protest, disruption of campus events and even the threat of vandalism to make their point. Last month, Chabad at University of Delaware was burned down and in August the vice president of the student government at USC was forced to step down solely because she is a supporter of Israel.
Indeed, since 2015, there have been more than 3,000 antisemitic events at American colleges and universities, according to AMCHA, a non-profit organization that combats campus antisemitism.
“What we’ve seen over the past few years is a real concentrated effort among student groups, professors and others to isolate pro-Israel students on campus, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, with anti-Israel events, BDS campaigns, harassment in classrooms, even refusing to write recommendations for students to study abroad in Israel,” said Rena Nasar First, executive director of campus affairs for StandWithUs, an organization that fights antisemitism and educates about Israel throughout the globe.
Indeed, groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) are now recruiting other campus “social justice” groups to their cause, said Ms. Dayan, including the Black Students Association at Columbia, LBGTQ groups and even the hip hop club.
“At Columbia, it was the first time in my life that Israel’s existence was challenged,” said Ms. Dayan. “I was shocked, but at Columbia it’s a legitimate position to hold. It’s the cool kids’ position. Everyone wants to be in that camp.”
Ms. Dayan’s experiences at Columbia and those of other Jewish students on campuses in the United States and abroad will be the subject of an online panel discussion, “Making a Commitment: the Fight Against Global Campus Antisemitism,” scheduled for October 18 and sponsored by six non-profit organizations, including Hidden Light Institute (HLI), StandWithUs, Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Combat Anti-Semitism, Fuente Latina and OpenDor Media.
The organizer, Tamara Berens, an HLI board member, is a graduate of King’s College London and a Krauthammer fellow at Mosaic magazine. For Ms. Berens, the goal of the upcoming panel session, which will feature speakers from the United States, Britain and Argentina, is to focus on campus antisemitism as a global problem.
“We want to rally around the idea that more needs to be done globally,” said Berens. “Jews need to come together and take a no tolerance approach to antisemitism.”
Indeed, Ms. Berens is a living witness to the fact that antisemitism is not confined to American campuses. At King’s College, she said, Jews are often targeted. She recalled that a male friend was beaten up when someone made a comment about his kippah and an argument ensued. As worrisome, several years ago, after a violent protest of a Shin Bet speaker, according to Ms. Berens, the college administration ruled that speakers invited by the Israel Club had to pass muster with the Palestinian Club before being allowed on campus. Importantly, no such restriction was placed on speakers invited by the Palestinian group.
As for reasoned debate among the groups, that’s never been possible, said Esther Walker, another King’s College graduate, a former Tikvah Fund fellow and a speaker at the October 18 panel. While some people from the Palestinian Society are open to private, even heated debate, she said, none of them will debate publicly even though the Israel Society has often asked them to.
“They refuse because they say that would be recognizing our society,” said Ms. Walker.
It doesn’t help that technology has made it a lot easier for such groups to promulgate their message to tens of thousands of others via online sites and social media. Ms. Nasar First of StandWithUs said, ”Online access and social media have emboldened anti-Israel groups and, far from slowing down their mission, has made it easier to accomplish.”
“People who have, at best, been misguided and, at worst, are motivated by hate, are feeling even more emboldened behind a screen to bully and harass pro-Israel students,” said Nasar First.
“For their part, college and university administrators may opt to hang back, often issuing blanket statements of criticism or support, but are leery of bad publicity or riling up more disruption. Frequently,” said Nasar First, “administrators don’t know what to do.”
“It’s really easy for an administration to send a mass email saying they don’t support an anti-Israel program or that they stand with Jewish students and leave it at that, but that is just not enough,” said Ms. Nasar First. “We want to see more than lip service, but in the meantime, we are actively taking steps so that pro-Israel students feel protected on campus.”
“StandWithUs,” said Ms. Nasar First, “provides resources for administrators (aside from students) and, in the past few months, has seen a few administrations who have stood up and done the right thing. We hope to see this momentum build from here.”
The upcoming panel discussion will not only delve into the campus experiences of Jewish students but also will highlight the no-nonsense approach to antisemitism of the late Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin who himself experienced antisemitism at the University of Warsaw in the 1930s. This program is part of a larger initiative for HLI, the leading sponsor of the event, to introduce, or in some cases reintroduce, Menachem Begin to the world.
On campuses, the Jewish community is often fractured, holding different views about Israel and its place in the world of nations. In the face of that divisiveness and the onslaught of antisemitism, HLI believes Begin can be a role model for young people as they fight harassment and work to support Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. Students today have little knowledge of Begin’s life or the risks he took to secure Israel’s birth and his defense of and fight for the survival of the Jewish people.
At the center of HLI’s efforts is the production of a documentary on Menachem Begin, to be released in 2021, which will both educate and galvanize, showcasing a strong and principled leader who never compromised when the dignity of the Jewish people was at stake.
For Esther Walker, the relevance of Menachem Begin to her experience and that of Jewish students on college campuses throughout the world is clear.
“To me, Menachem Begin is an extremely inspiring leader,” said Walker. “He was unapologetic and had a humongous commitment to the unity of the Jewish people.”
Ms. Walker sees the upcoming panel as an opportunity to refresh her knowledge of Begin and draw inspiration: “It reminds me of how truly great he was and that he must definitely not be forgotten.”
Like the other panelists who will be speaking about their experiences with antisemitism, Ms. Walker has made a commitment to fight for the Jewish people. To learn about their fight and how to counter anti-Jewish prejudice and discrimination at your college or university, sign up here: https://bit.ly/36R5Mhs.
Making a Commitment: The Fight Against Global Campus Antisemitism is a virtual event that will be held October 18 at 1:00 pm EST. Four student leaders from the US, the UK, and Argentina, through storytelling of their own experiences, will share how Menachem Begin’s values and legacy inspire them to respond to antisemitism on their campuses.