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.

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