Future looks bleak on campus for pro-israel students
It is not a fortuitous time to be a supporter of Israel on university campuses. I have spent the last six years in such circumstances, and I can say with near-certainty that publicizing your pro-israel leanings will garner you no friends.
The intensification of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) motions on campuses, Black Lives Matter’s explicit sanctioning of Israel in its updated charter, and the emergence of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are some of the topical social movements that have publicly denounced Israel. The propagation of terminology like “pinkwashing” and “greenwashing,” “apartheid state,” “occupation” and “colonizer” have become de rigueur in universities, cementing Israel as the illiberal, anti-progressive unifying cause for many.
Based on this, it is understandable why finding openly supportive students of Israel – Jewish and non-jewish – is frustrating. The identity politics era and the campus politics strategy to delegitimize Israel have rendered the subject seemingly incompatible with an “acceptable” political position.
In an undergraduate Middle Eastern history course, one student called Israel an “apartheid state” and Hamas a social movement. In graduate school, my Canadian history professor claimed that Israel is the worst human rights offender globally and called the Jewish emphasis on intra-communal marriage racist. A dear friend called Israel a “warmonger,” mistakenly believing the Jewish state to be engaged in military action in Iraq. A French studies professor at Western University actively aided, volunteered for, and briefed the local student chapter for Solidarity with Palestinian Rights and alluded on Facebook to the “Zionist Lobby.” At a recent Graduate Students’ Union meeting at the University of Toronto regarding a prospective BDS motion, my speech concerning the committee’s inaction about an invited lecturer’s comments that Jews were “inherently racist, fascist, and colonialist” was questioned for its relevance.
Although it is no stunning revelation that campus politics have become inimical to any gradation of pro-israel expression, what is more concerning is the pall this reality has cast over the minds and attitudes of Jewish students.
While I firmly believe that Jewish students here are well-positioned to voice their concerns, there has been a silencing effect. I experienced this first hand when a student-run magazine refused to publish an article I wrote about the United Nations’ treatment of Israel. The truth is, few wish to engender the sort of vitriol that is generally levelled at those who support Israel, a country campus critics derogatively label as oppressive, colonialist, fascist and racist.
Wilfully subjecting oneself to such scrutiny and discomfort is a difficult cause to sell. Meanwhile, compounding such problems of political expression is the increasingly apolitical nature of Jewish students, which may be a corollary of North American Jewry’s socio-economic success.
The relationship between a fading Jewish identity and disinterest in Israel has indelibly framed my view of North American Jewry. Few of my Jewish friends have the conviction or passion to engage in what is perceived to be tendentious politicking. Few will write columns in student newspapers, participate in Israel-related campus activities, or voice their concerns publicly regarding anti-semitism or anti-israel incidents. Few are informed about the latest developments in Israel. The concepts of incitement, settlements, the 1967 borders, or Hamas are distant concepts – background ambience – to their lives in Canada. Friends have confided that they are fearful of speaking up on campuses, partaking in pro-israel events, or outing themselves with such a cause.
I have met many inspired, motivated, and deeply knowledgeable Jewish students across Canadian campuses who have dedicated their extracurricular lives to defending Israel. With their support, and help from organizations as Hasbara Fellowships, there is a budding faction of adroit Canadian Jewish Israel advocates. Nonetheless, it is hard to separate this generation from our historical context.
Unlike my grandparents’ generation, for which the pall of the Holocaust hung over Jewish consciousness, or my father’s, for which events such as the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars punctuated their existence, millennials do not have similar reminders.
What is our great triumph to which we can rally? Oslo? Peace with Jordan? The Gaza disengagement plan? This is far from the heady stuff of Israel’s creation, Eichmann’s trial or peace with Egypt.
In many respects the struggle with Israel – that of a strong, successful, and liberal country, yet struggling to arouse the loyalties of many young secular North American Jews – is analogous to the domestic public relations problems the United States encountered throughout the Cold War. The disenchantment among American youth with Washington’s foreign and economic policies, despite the nation’s more liberal and human-rights oriented disposition, manifested itself in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
A significant segment of Jewish youth today, I would argue, has reacted in a similar fashion. A few examples include Brown University’s Hillel chapter paying tribute to the nakba, a Palestinian event commemorated intentionally on Israeli Independence Day to honour refugees; a recent Israel/ Palestine symposium at the University of Toronto (co-sponsored by the Jewish studies department) that included speakers who defined the conflict in terms such as “genocide” and “apartheid”; and J-street, the growing American Jewish advocacy group catering to younger left-leaning audiences, hosted Mustafa Barghouti and BDS proponents at a conference.
The vitriol leveled at Israel from within the Jewish community is astonishing and similar to the overarching actions of the counterculture movement. It is the refutation of the traditional positions of past emphasizing how one’s parents and grandparents are misguided. In fact, the elder generation’s maintenance of such a viewpoint is perceived as evidence of their willingness to perpetuate the conflict and callousness. The emergence of such beliefs accompanied by a broader disinterest with Jewish identity makes for a dangerous concoction, and portends poorly for the future of liberal Jews in North America.