For most college students, summer is an opportunity travel, hang out with friends or land that exciting internship. But for more than 80 students from nearly 70 campuses, learning how to successfully respond to campus antisemitism and anti-Israel activism was part of their summer plans.
Earlier this month, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) hosted a four-day conference in Boston replete with lectures, discussions and workshops guiding college students to become more effective supporters of the Jewish state.
“Students are coming from as far away as the U.K., Ireland and Canada to strengthen their Israel activism with us,” said Aviva Rosenschein, CAMERA’s international campus director. “Hatred directed at students who support Israel is, unfortunately, a global issue, and we are working hard to help as many students across the world as we can.”
This year’s conference included a wide range of lessons and activities — from activities like Krav Maga lessons and an indoor trampoline park to dealing with more serious campus issues, such as the evolution of the BDS movement, anti-Israel groups and anti-Semitism. The goal was to empower students to speak up more, write more powerfully and craft their own personal narratives.
“The point of the conference is to equip students with the tools needed to combat anti-Israel activism on college campuses,” said Andrea Levin, CAMERA president and executive director. “These students came from around the world to attend the conference, showing how committed and passionate they are about Israel and its cause. It’s truly inspiring.”
A changing campus environment
Part of the goal of this year’s conference was to address the changing environment on campus for pro-Israel and Jewish students.
In the last several years, a great deal of focus has been places on the ongoing battle against the BDS movement. And rightly so, according to those involved in combating the ideology of these groups; during the past year, Jewish-led anti-Israel groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, have started to penetrate into the campus scene, summer camps and Israel trips.
As such, CAMERA’s campus staff sought to address this emerging challenge and have changed their conference to reflect this new reality.
One of the biggest changes to this year’s conference is the shift away from a heavy focus on the battle over BDS resolutions and a more direct emphasis on educating students on these anti-Israel Jewish groups.
“We’ve found that BDS supporters are enacting new tactics on campus, in addition to their resolutions, which are even further targeting and discriminating against individual Jewish and Israeli students,” Hali Haber, director of campus programming and strategic relationship at CAMERA, told JNS.
“Strategy sessions at our conference reflected the intensified campaigns against Israel’s supporters, such as Jewish Voice for Peace’s “Deadly Campaign,” which aims to demonize and end the support that Israel provides to America’s security.”
One of those changes was to drop the BDS mock trial, where students role-play opposing sides of a BDS resolution vote as part of a campus student council. This doesn’t mean that BDS resolutions are no longer a focus. Haber said that BDS resolutions are becoming more complex and specific.
“It is a lot harder to pass BDS resolutions now, so the BDS proponents have to find a way more indirect way to bring BDS to campus without it directly saying that,” said Haber.
So in addition to looking more in-depth into BDS resolutions, students also spent an entire afternoon learning more about anti-Israel groups on campus, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine and IfNotNow, as well as a new campaign called “deadly exchange,” where anti-Israel groups talk about how police in America are being trained by Israel and how that affects American police treatment of minority groups here.
Rosenschein told JNS that one of the biggest challenges pro-Israel Jewish students on college face today is strong opposition to Israel from groups comprised of anti-Israel Jews. She pointed to Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been around for many years as a national organization, but has more recently began establishing more chapters on campus.
“Last year, they started making more chapters and getting their students to write in the campus papers, and really normalizing themselves as just another peaceful group on campus,” she said. “However, this is an extremist fringe Jewish organization well outside of the mainstream that supports boycotting Israel and even hosted an event in Chicago last year with convicted Palestinian terrorist Ramea Odeh.”
Rosenschein said groups like JVP and IfNotNow, the latter of which has many Jewish students as members and emerged onto the campus scene in the past year, make it difficult for Jewish students to figure out where to stand because they mask themselves as organizations standing for peace, which appeals to students, but are very much out of the mainstream.
“This is a fringe group [JVP] that is very far out of the mainstream Jewish community,” she said.
Supporting international students
Beyond the American campus, CAMERA brought in international students this year from Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland to discuss their experiences and challenges there.
Daniel O’Dowd, a law student at Ireland’s Maynooth University and president of Irish Students of Israel told JNS that his group faces an enormous challenge from pro-Palestinian groups.
“The people who are pro-Palestinian are militantly so. It’s very violent in that sense and very aggressive. The campus situation is very different from U.S. There is a great pro-Israel consensus in the U.S., but even in the places where it is 50-50, it doesn’t manifest itself in the same way or as extremely as it does in Ireland.”
Indeed, Ireland is regarded as one of the most anti-Israel country in the European Union. In fact, the Irish Senate recently passed a resolution to boycott Israeli settlements — the first such measure within the E.U.
“Ireland has really become the hotbed for the BDS movement in Europe,” said O’Dowd. “They’ve enjoyed for a long time a very pro-Palestinian sentiment among Irish public figures and leaders, while there has been a huge anti-Semitic undertone to Irish history.”
Much of this sentiment O’Dowd said stems the conflict in Northern Ireland, where those advocating for an end to British rule see solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
“The Nationalist Republican community very strongly identifies with the Palestinians, who are seen as the underdog, while the Unionists [who support remaining in the U.K.] are very pro-Israel,” he said.
O’Dowd added that this sentiment directly translated onto the college campus. “On campus, that has come across quite strongly as well. Our previous president was assaulted and received death threats.”
He has been working with CAMERA over the past year for support and to bring in pro-Israel speakers and events, and hopes that more Irish will understand that similarities between the Irish struggle for freedom and that of Israel’s self-determination.
“It’s very hypocritical to be pro-Irish and pro-Irish self-determination, and not be pro-Israel. Israel is a story of self-determination. It’s a history of armed uprising and resistance, like in Ireland under Michael Collins [an Irish revolutionary, soldier and politician many view as one of the founders of modern Ireland]. There are huge historical parallels and similarities there. I don’t see how these two have diverged.”
Progressive students and Israel
Amid the challenges students face by the BDS movement, pro-Palestinian groups and anti-Israel student groups, there is also the issue of being openly pro-Israel while identifying as politically liberal or even a progressive.
This is a dilemma faced by many students, who are often forced to choose between supporting progressive politics or supporting Israel.
At this year’s conference, CAMERA sought to address this by beginning in Amanda Berman, co-founder of the Zioness Movement, a progressive Zionist group. She told JNS that many liberal Zionist students feel alienated on campus and find themselves forced to make a false choice between Jewish/Zionist identities, and their progressive and activist identities.
“It is a heartbreaking dilemma for them because they see a natural alliance between those two inherent parts of their being: their commitment to tikkun olam informs and empowers them in their activism and their desire to fight for progress,” she said.
“Zioness exists to provide a community to all these targeted individuals, allies and accomplices who want to stand proudly in progressive space and fight for social, racial, economic and gender justice as proud, progressive Zionists,” explained Berman. “We are thrilled to see how fulfilling it is for everyone seeking this type of community, so that they can participate in the important movements of our time without checking any piece of their inherent identity at the door.”
In recent years, a number of liberal arts colleges have become hotbeds of anti-Israel activism.
Rebekah Katz, a rising senior at Swarthmore College in the Philadelphia suburbs, told JNS that one of the progressive tropes at her school is that in order to be a good progressive Jew, you “are put on a platform to immediately denounce Israel in all shapes and forms.”
“Many of the anti-Zionists are Swarthmore are Jewish, and they claim to use this ethos as an American Jew to denounce the occupation. Immediately, you are put in this place of conflicting identities.”
And, she added, “for many students, say they are queer and Zionist; they are forced to choose between these two identities. The Swarthmore queer union associates more with SJP than with Zionist groups.”
Swarthmore gained headlines in 2013, when the school’s Hillel declared itself an “Open Hillel” and not abide by Hillel’s ban on hosting anti-Israel speakers. Eventually, after pressure from its former parent organization, Hillel International, they dropped the Hillel name altogether and changed their organization to Swarthmore Kehilah.
Katz, who knew this history when she entered Swarthmore, said that it has been very difficult to be openly Zionist on her campus. She said it “has put a lot of strain on friendships — my events have been boycotted, and I have been called a white supremacist and a racist.”
Similarly, Jesse Friedson, a student at nearby Haverford College, said he has found it much easier to be a queer student than to be a Zionist.
“I would like to be more of an Israeli activist on campus, but socially, that is a very difficult decision to make. As I have come out of my shell more and posted on Facebook, I have started to get a reputation. And I think it is unfortunate that I have to choose between something I believe in so strongly and having friends,” he said.
Friedson believes that among progressives, there has been a trend of applying a moral label of good versus bad off an individual’s political beliefs.
“I think a lot of people, if they aren’t personally involved, they have all the reason to want to be seen as morally good, and support the Palestinians and not see a particular reason to support Israel.”
Jesse Slomowitz, a senior and film major at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who had previously attended the CAMERA conference and returned to assist, told JNS that he was impressed with this year’s cohort.
“The number of people involved with CAMERA is expanding,” he said. “The positive side is that I am seeing more students involved, but the downside is they have more reasons for joining.
“Luckily, these people coming in are strong-willed people. They are in some hard schools. But I believe CAMERA has picked the right people to stand up and push back when anti-Israel stuff happens.”
Slomowitz said at the end of the day, every student will contribute in his or her own unique way to be an advocate for Israel.
“The thing is there are different ways to be out there being an Israel advocate, and students need to realize that. If sometimes you have to be that person debating, that’s great, but for others, that may not be their strength. They may be stronger in writing, debating online or managing an organization.
“There have to be students who are ready to take on different roles,” he continued. “Everyone has a purpose within the Israel advocacy world, and no one should lose hope that they are just worthless or don’t have a purpose here.”