The Jerusalem Post
Birthright’s breath of fresh air
Countering atmospheric antisemitism and suffocating thought-policing
For years, when meeting Zionist activists on campus, I’ve heard their tales of woe. It often feels like Zionists Anonymous – or group therapy. One student describes being bullied or canceled for being pro-Israel. Suddenly, the dam breaks. Others share their stories – then others.
While such harassment is infuriating, these students chose to make a stand.
Now, uninvolved Jewish students feel targeted by the haters: shamed and shunned for their identity, not their politics; for daring to be Jewish. It’s atmospheric antisemitism, a superstorm wherein social media algorithms weaponize the big blackand-white lie equating Israel’s Palestinian problem with American racism.
I realized how this ominous shift works after meeting some Taglit-Birthright Israel participants on one of the first trips to Israel since Covid. Even before outing themselves by going on Birthright, many felt harassed simply for being Jewish.
“I used to think that BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] was such a micro thing,” one Californian reported. “But in May it all changed. Even friends who I respect are sharing harsh things about Israel. I don’t feel comfortable sharing that I am here or sending any pictures. Israel
gets such a bad rap with social media .... ”
In high school, “I didn’t feel people were mad at me for being Jewish or for being Israeli,” a daughter of Israelis reported. “I was never scared growing up.
“It changed when I came to college. There’s something called woke – that’s when they tell you what to think. They are not afraid to spread misinformation.
“I am very proud [of Israel] but was afraid to post at first. But I saw so much misinformation during the war I felt a duty to post .... It was very hard seeing Bella and Gigi Hadid and other social influencers attacking Israel .... ”
“The whole discourse around Israel is really toxic, with tons of bigotry,” an incoming freshman agreed. “More of our friends hide their opinions.”
Sadly, coming on Birthright took courage.
“I was scared of being shunned,” the daughter of Israelis admitted. “Everyone in my sorority is anti-Israel. I was scared it would affect my relationships with them. It was hard dealing with two different parts of my identity. One friend on this trip had a best friend of six years who blocked her on social media because she came on this trip.”
Most sobering was a young man from suburban Connecticut. He hides his Jewish star “underneath my shirt” and is “swivel-headed” when visiting New York City. He said friends in San Francisco considered removing their mezuzah from their door “because they don’t want a public presence.” He is considering getting a gun license.
As he spoke, I watched the others. I wanted to hear one objection. I wanted to scream “that’s not my America. My America is the America of Billings, Montana, where when one vandal broke a window with a menorah one Hanukkah, thousands responded by hanging paper menorahs in their windows.” Instead, everyone nodded in agreement. What’s happening? Social influencers libel Israel, calling Zionism “racism.” Non-Jewish noncombatants, liking the source and wanting to virtue-signal that they are anti-racist, “like” the post. The algorithms kick in, bombarding them with more anti-Zionist and antisemitic messages, which they forward instinctively.
Their once-not-very activist Jewish friends bristle. If they object, they’re labeled “racist.” In today’s polarized environment, the Jews’ resistance often makes the once-uninvolved friend increasingly anti-Israel, to self-justify.
Suddenly, more non-Jews turn anti-Israel. A few Jews join the bashing, but many others rally around the flag, feeling more proudly Jewish – yet bullied and anxious to hide it, too.
This airborne antisemitism is often unintentional. It’s not yet systemic. But when academics keep condemning Israel hysterically, and so many noncombatants forward it all along so effortlessly, the rot starts cementing, not just seeping in.
THE PARTICIPANTS loved Birthright. Their trip made them, one said, even more aware of the “misinformation out there.” And they confirmed the winter 2019 findings, when over 80% of participants reported opportunities “to think critically about Israel’s challenges” and “express my thoughts and ideas.”
A nursing student who was “hesitant about coming” reported: “I am shocked by the misinformation online. I know it’s all misinformation, but I didn’t know how much. And, I admit, I was a little nervous about whether the information from Birthright would be one-sided. I have been pleasantly surprised by how open it’s been.”
“I am not anti-Palestinian,” another added. “I am pro-Palestinian, but I am also pro-Israel.”
Hearing her, hearing them, I realized that decades of building Birthright’s person-centered, open-minded educational approach was paying off profoundly now.
“One night we did a ‘Social Barometer’ exercise,” a group leader reported. Someone raises a hot issue and people stand by numbers on the wall ranging from +100 to -100 to show how they feel. “They loved it. It was great seeing friends take different stands and discuss it. They insisted on doing it the next night, offering their own topics, whatever was on their mind.”
Clearly, these young people crave real conversation, honest, nuanced analysis, rejecting today’s suffocating propaganda, bullying and doublethink. Being countercultural, Birthright invites them to experience Israel openly – and simply to think freely, talk frankly, to breathe.
MEANWHILE, TOO many Jewish students cower. Too many Jewish parents continue subsidizing and worshiping an increasingly propagandistic university system. And too many Jewish leaders are silent, trying to be on the correct side politically – when this is a struggle over identity. Fearful that if they object to any progressive attacks, they will be deemed racist, Trumpian and un-woke, some see Jew-hatred only from the Right, ignore anti-Zionism’s antisemitism, and double down on criticizing Israel, virtue-signaling themselves.
Leaders, parents, and students must confront the Jew-haters and thought-policers – even within the Jewish community. Reach out calmly, intelligently, to your friends – while shouting out to the world, loud and proud, “I am a Jew! I am a Zionist! I am a freethinker!”
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism, and the voluntary lay chairman of the Birthright-Israel International Education Committee. The views expressed here are his own.