Students Go Proactive to Counter BDS and Anti-Israel Sentiments on College Campuses
by Yaffi Spodek
One night last April, Jewish students at New York University were shocked to find threatening eviction notices in their dorm rooms. Sent by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the notices claimed to replicate the notes left at Palestinian homes by the Israeli government. In November, SJP at City University of New York protested tuition hikes by blaming the “Zionist administration” for investing in Israeli companies.
These are among the intimidation tactics employed by aggressive groups on campus, as hateful anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitic incidents become increasingly prevalent at colleges across the country. Swastikas have defiled campus walls at the likes of Yale University and Emory University, two of the 55 schools nationwide that reported such an occurrence, as tracked by the AMCHA Initiative.
Local colleges in Florida and South Palm Beach County are not immune: Just last month, several buildings at the University of Central Florida (UCF) were vandalized with swastika stickers and messages calling for Israel boycotts.
In fall 2015, 150 explicitly anti-Israel events were held on American university campuses, a 30 percent increase from last year, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. The biggest challenge is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to delegitimize Israel by comparing it to apartheid South Africa and urges individuals, companies and governments to stop doing business with Israeli companies. In total, there were over 520 anti-Israel events on U.S. campuses in 2014, including 19 schools with divestment resolutions.
In August 2014, SJP brought a divestment resolution to the student government at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, but the resolution was tabled indefinitely and cannot be brought back unless three quarters of it is changed. SJP at University of South Florida (USF) brought forward a similar resolution in May 2014, where it was defeated as well. Since this victory for the campuses’ pro-Israel leaders, their momentum has increased.
“We’re very fortunate that we don’t have the kinds of anti-Israel activities that other campuses have – SJP is not a major presence and they haven’t held any events this semester,” said Raina Goldberg, Executive Director of Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach. “We do have an incredibly strong Israel presence with our active Owls for Israel group which runs pro-Israel activities, along with interns from StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, The David Project, AIPAC and other organizations, and a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow.”
Owls for Israel, FAU’s Israel advocacy group, has grown exponentially over the years and includes students of all backgrounds.
“Owls for Israel doubled in size since it began several years ago,” said Talia Lerner, the group’s president and a junior at FAU. “Our goal is to build coalitions and educate others so they know that Israel promotes peace and diversity and is not an apartheid state.”
Since becoming involved in Owls for Israel, Lerner organized a conference that brought together 150 pro-Israel student leaders from colleges across the state, and planned a three-day conference for student leaders from over 20 different organizations to learn about Israel.
Hillel at FAU also hosted a retreat called “Understanding Israel,” a seminar co-sponsored by StandWithUS for 21 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to learn about Israel and advocacy training.
“It’s all about sending a positive message and sharing information about the good things that are coming out of Israel,” Goldberg added. “If you focus on the conflict, people will perceive Israel negatively. We have an enthusiastic and supportive community, and we train our students to be leaders in advocating for Israel.”
Education is a critical first step, and the majority of students do not know the essential facts.
“This generation of college students is grossly deficient in Jewish and Israeli history,” noted Linda Scherzer, former Middle East Correspondent for CNN, who spoke in Boca Raton last month. “But the good news is that there’s never been a better time to be a Jewish college student on an American campus. There’s Hillel, Chabad, StandWithUs, CAMERA, AIPAC and a plethora of other Jewish organizations inviting students to connect to Judaism and learn about Israel."
And it’s never too early to starting learning. Scherzer directs Write on for Israel, which trains high school students to advocate for Israel in preparation for the challenges they’ll face at college. Locally, the Jewish Community Relations Council of South Palm Beach County is presenting a seminar in January called “College Prep: A Slice of Israel,” designed to teach high school students how to combat the anti-Israel myths and BDS proposals they will confront on campus. The JCRC is also involved in a resolution in the Florida legislature to condemn the BDS movement and increasing incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses.
But before students are motivated to get involved, at any stage of their education, they need to forge a positive connection with Israel to believe in the cause they are promoting.
“BDS is just a statement by the student government that only has a psychological impact by creating the perception that Israel is so egregious a human rights violator, that they should be divested from,” explained Matt Weisbaum, Managing Director of JerusalemU.
That anti-Israel perception on campus, coupled with negative reports in the media, leaves impressionable students without a meaningful way to connect to Israel. “Young people today do not have the innate sense of Zionism as other generations did,” said Weisbaum. “We can no longer expect that they will naturally be pro-Israel, so we have to actively educate them.”
JerusalemU works to engage students by creating a positive emotional connection to Israel through films, such as “Beneath the Helmet,” which gives viewers a glimpse into the personal lives of Israelis drafted into the IDF. They also educate through films like the new documentary, “Crossing the Line 2,” that “reveals the rise of anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitic rhetoric on North American university campuses, and demonstrates when reasonable criticism of Israel ‘Crosses the Line’ into anti-Semitism.” JerusalemU partners with hundreds of organizations on campuses worldwide to provide curricula, lessons and incentives with students getting paid to see a series of films and complete classes and quizzes on Israel and Judaism. The films have been shown at more than 300 campuses worldwide.
“Our films are engaging and thought-provoking, sparking a lot of dialogue,” Weisbaum said. “So many young people don’t realize the extent of the issues, or have the knowledge and confidence to speak up about them.”
One of JersualemU’s partner organizations and a leading presence on campuses across the country is StandWithUs.
“We’re an educational organization and we’re there for all the schools to make sure they have the facts so they can defend Israel and not be intimidated,” said Lauren Feibelman, Southeast Campus Coordinator for StandWithUs. “Even though most schools [in South Florida] are not experiencing BDS right now, we are constantly preparing for it and that’s why we proactively provide ongoing support.”
One program that StandWithUs offers is an Emerson Fellowship, which trains college students to become part of an elite cadre of leaders on campuses across North America, using their skills to inspire their peers to run effective pro-Israel events and bring Israel’s message to their campuses. Emerson Fellows are thriving this year at FAU and USF.
StandWithUs also sponsored a variety of events on local campuses including a Birthright enhancement program at University of Florida to educate participants before the trip; a cultural immersion day at University of Miami with offerings like Krav Maga, a highly effective self-defense system developed for the IDF, and Israeli trivia; bringing Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt to FSU; and providing “Israel Matters” display panels to USF to depict different aspects of Israel. The organization also gives out free educational materials and “I love Israel” paraphernalia for students to distribute on campus.
Leading Jewish groups at other local colleges continue to spread pro-Israel passion and positive vibes. Aaron Weil, Executive Director and CEO of Hillel at UCF, noted that Hillel and Knights for Israel are trying to build wider coalitions on its campus through student engagement, within and outside the Jewish community.
“This generation does not feel a connection to Israel and it’s so important for us to engage these students because this is the last time to catch them before assimilation,” said Weil, noting that Birthright has a 44 percent increase in recruitment. “While we don’t have BDS on campus, we’re taking advantage of this time to invest in wider community efforts. If BDS does come here, we are fostering an environment where it won’t find fertile ground.”
To that end, Hillel at UCF runs a program called Saalam Shalom Dialogue, which brings together Muslim and Jewish students to discuss topics unrelated to politics, and a new restaurant just opened on campus, which is both Kosher and Halal-certified, a first in the state of Florida. “These initiatives allow us to build close personal relationships and minimize opportunities for miscommunication,” Weil added.
Communication is crucial at Florida State University (FSU). “We focus on dialogue and not diatribe,” said Melanie Annis, Executive Director of Hillel at FSU. “We try to find a common ground and we believe that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Hillel at FSU has hosted a “More Alike than Different” dinner, inviting a diverse group of over 100 student leaders, including Jews, Muslims, Middle Easterners and Israelis, to bond over what they have in common, rather than focusing on their differences.
Located in Tallahassee, FSU students and Noles for Israel are active in AIPAC and often call legislators to present arguments to influence public policy, such as Senate Bill 86, which would require the state to identify all companies boycotting Israel and prohibit any state agency or local government entity from contracting for goods and services that exceed a specified amount with those identified companies.
While the BDS movement is rampant on some campuses, it’s not an imminent threat at University of Florida (UF), whose Jewish student population is well over 6,000.
“We have a strong pro-Israel presence and a sense of advocacy, led by Gators for Israel, Zionist Gators and other campus groups,” said Rabbi Adam Grossman, Executive Director at UF Hillel.
UF is one of the top five campuses in the country for sending students – both Jews and non-Jews – to the AIPAC conference, which is a highlight of the year, according to Rabbi Grossman. Another way UF students show their support is by visiting Israel: last year, 200 students went on Birthright, and UF is hoping to increase the number to 240 this year.
“Instead of being reactive to any negative Israel activity, we are proactive,” he added. “We are committed to being engaged in pro-Israel activities and making a difference.”