July 13, 2024
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Anti-Zionism on College Campuses

(Note: Studies conducted by the Anti-Defamation League have documented and analyzed the widespread anti-Israel and anti-Zionism campus groups in detail. This article is based on their research.)

High school seniors have received their college admissions for next year. When they set foot on many college campuses, will they be prepared to deal with the anti-Israel and anti-Zionist movements and rhetoric that they will encounter? Do they have the background, knowledge and facts to counter the anti-Israel activist movements on campus that continue to vilify Israel and Zionism, and ostracize pro-Israel and Zionist students?

Most Jewish students, not just day-school graduates, feel a bond with Israel as an integral component of their religious, social or cultural lives—and identities. Because of this activity on campus, many Jewish students feel compelled to hide their Jewish identity.

The campus anti-Israel movements range from legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies to expressions of antisemitism from some activists. Anti-Israel rhetoric may include invoking classic antisemitic themes; denigrating Zionism as inherently racist; and demeaning pro-Israel students and/or calling for their exclusion from campus spaces.

The campus anti-Israel movements are led by student groups as well as some professors. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) continue to be two of the most influential anti-Israel campus groups, allied often with like-minded organizations such as Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and American Muslims for Palestine (AMP).

One of the most common strategies of anti-Israel activists is to promote the view that any expression of a connection with or support for Israel is racist, thereby implicitly portraying many Jewish students as being complicit in the alleged misdeeds of the Israeli government. Another tactic used by anti-Israel activists, many of whom are not Jewish, is to loudly insist that Zionism and support for Israel cannot be a part of Judaism, despite the fact that for many Jewish students, these are integral components of their Jewish identities.

Some of the most strident anti-Israel activists also call for Israel to be dismantled or denied its right to exist; and express support for violent resistance to Israel.

Calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel continue to be a cornerstone of anti-Israel campus activity. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is a flashpoint for anti-Israel activism on campus. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced most anti-Israel activity online, the movement’s organizing did not appear to falter, and it is back now in full force.

These groups reflect a position among some parts of the left, which claim that Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians, or at times the very existence of Israel, are representative of the worst of global systemic injustices.

Anti-Israel hostility may be expressed in various ways, including: calling for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; accusing Israel of committing genocide or ethnic cleansing; labeling Israel an “apartheid state”; calling for BDS against Israel; supporting violence or a military conflict with Israel; and opposition to Zionism and Zionists.

Zionism is criticized as intrinsically racist. Pro-Israel and Zionist students are ostracized and demeaned as “white supremacists” and otherwise unfit for participation in the campus community. Many campus anti-Israel groups and faculty continue to avoid the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute between two national movements with competing claims for the same small piece of land. Instead, Israel is viewed solely through a condemnatory lens, and its creation and existence as a Jewish state is demeaned as a cut-and-dry case of settler-colonialism. Oftentimes, Israelis are seen as little more than white European colonists engaged in the physical erasure of Palestinians from their land, perpetuating an apartheid regime. Comparisons are made to apartheid South Africa or Algeria under French colonial rule. Zionism is labeled as inherently racist.

Some in the Jewish community support a two-state solution, while some do not. But here’s the difference, Much of the anti-Israel movement on campus continues to reject the “two-states for two peoples” solution, which would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel as part of a mutually negotiated final status peace agreement. Instead, they often advocate for one democratic state in the region for all people regardless of religion or ethnicity—but one that rejects Zionism and the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Some anti-Israel advocates go even further and call for some Jewish Israelis to leave the country altogether. In tandem, activists often deny that the Jewish people are indigenous to the land of Israel.

While only a minority of anti-Israel activity on campus explicitly references antisemitic messages, the large volume of anti-Israel activity ensures many Jewish students will encounter bigotry. Dormitory doors with mezuzot have been vandalized, and kipot wearers are open targets.

In addition to the use of antisemitic themes, anti-Israel rhetoric can become antisemitic when opposition to Zionism turns into the active maligning, exclusion and denigration of Zionism and Zionists. Viewing Zionists as inherently nefarious and undeserving of certain rights can lead to many Jewish students feeling isolated and under siege. Moreover, the animosity aimed at Jews who support Israel’s existence is rarely matched with energy targeting non-Jews, most of whom also recognize and support Israel’s existence.

Criticism and debate over the policies of the State of Israel—like criticism of any country—is part of a healthy campus ecosystem. The First Amendment protects the right to boycott, as well as to engage in harsh and divisive rhetoric. Yet students and faculty of all political persuasions can and should do their best to engage in healthy and respectful dialogue.

However, dialogue that is not based on solid factual information becomes a shout fest. Are we preparing our graduates to enter this noxious environment? Aside from teaching about Zionism, do our schools teach how to organize a rally or how to debate? Do our students have the necessary tools to stand up to bigotry and hatred?


Dr. Wallace Greene has taught history at Yeshiva University, Queens, College, Upsala College, and at Frisch Yeshiva High School.

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