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Wednesday, October 05, 2022
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In the fall of 2021, Ruthie Vogel, a student at the University of Maryland, asked her business ethics professor how to prepare for missing class due to chagim during her first semester of college. “He told me I’d be able to make everything up,” she said. However, when she returned to classes after the chagim and met with her teacher again, he told her that the work “could only have been done during class.” Vogel said that his response disappointed her because “it was a class that was built on discussing values, so I thought he would care more—but he didn’t.”

For Orthodox Jewish students attending a secular college, the reality of their college experience includes professors unwilling to accommodate their religious needs, or fellow students unknowingly regurgitating popular antisemitic ideas. Sarah Forst, an incoming senior at Binghamton University, recounted similar experiences as Vogel, relating a time when a professor learned he must allow her to miss his class because of the Jewish holidays but told her to her face that he didn’t want to, while another professor “called me a liar because I said that I couldn’t take a test on a Jewish holiday until a certain time.” Another time, a fellow residential adviser told Forst that “his accountant was cheap because he [the accountant] was Jewish.”

Forst continued that, while she learned facts about Israel and was shown maps in her Israel advocacy class at the Frisch School in Paramus, she wished part of her class could have also addressed the types of explicit antisemitism she would go on to experience on campus, explaining how stumped she was when she confronted people openly buying into classic antisemetic tropes and stereotypes. “There’s such a misconception that Jews are cheap and that we love money, [that] we have big noses,” she explained. “That needs to be focused on. I can tell you that we had this area of land and that area of land, but with the things I’ve been hearing, it’s more than that. There are antisemitic things said beside just arguments about the land.”

Shayna Lopatin, who attended SAR Academy in Riverdale and is now an incoming junior at the University of Michigan, expressed a similar idea, saying that she wished she had had events and classes in high school that focused on addressing antisemitism in the moment. “Sometimes you don’t realize that something is antisemitic until after, and it’s OK to process things in your own way,” she elaborated. “In the moment, people think, ‘I don’t know what to do, should I address this now, should I address this after, how do I write an email to my professor telling them?’” 

Lopatin added that she wished she had known that “there are people you can talk to” before she had arrived at campus. “You’re not alone,” she said. “There is a Jewish community that is there to support you.”

Although high school Israel advocacy class teaches students about history and debate points, the issue of on-campus antisemitism and anti-Zionism is so complex that it is not surprising to learn that students often still feel unprepared once they set foot on campus. Another issue that is rarely confronted is how to deal with non-Jewish teachers and students at U.S. colleges who are often ignorant or dismissive of the roles they play in perpetuating antisemitism, and the psychological fallout of Jewish students on campus feeling alone—abandoned by their administration, teachers and fellow students.

Ezra Perlmutter, who attended North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, is now an incoming senior at Rutgers University and has had several confrontations with antisemites on his campus, which are usually not addressed by the university. He detailed the constant incidents of antisemitism that have targeted his Jewish fraternity, AEPi, including being egged during Yom HaShoah events for two years in a row, as well as being screamed at with antisemitic slurs by Rutger’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and said that some “smaller incidents” included stories of students in his fraternity “getting screamed at” and being labeled with slurs while wearing a kippah on Shabbat and walking to the Hillel or Chabad.

“Smaller incidents” of being verbally attacked and singled out by fellow students, which Perlmutter said occur on a weekly basis, are worsened by the fact that he and his peers often feel abandoned by their university administration and Hillel, with Perlmutter saying that Rutgers struggles to address incidents of antisemitism. He explained that, when his fraternity was egged last year, the university released a statement labeling the incident as antisemitic, but later apologized and retracted it after being attacked and pressured “because they didn’t say something for the kids of Palestine.”

Perlmutter continued that “the first-ever time [the university] took a stance” was when the fraternity was egged again by the campus’s SJP group this year at their Holocaust event, after which the university released a statement calling the attack “a blatant act of antisemitism.” Perlmutter said that “no one cares” about the on-campus Jews at Rutgers “getting screamed at all day” because “that happens everywhere,”—“They have to wait until we’re put in some danger of some sort.” He ended with a frustrated plea for Rutgers and its Hillel to take a stronger stance on addressing the on-campus antisemitism.

Students are attacked by on-campus student governments as well. Lopatin described an intense “paint war” that took place on Michigan’s campus during the rocket attacks in Israel in May of 2021, centering around a large rock at the entrance of the campus that students, specifically clubs, paint over to advertise events and causes. “People were painting over it [with] the Palestinian flag and ‘Israel must go’ and very anti-Israel things that were going into antisemitism, like, ‘The Jewish state should be no more,’” explained Lopatin. The Hillel, along with Israel supporters, then painted over the rock with pro-Israel statements, and the incident devolved into “a very serious paint war.” Lopatin said that many of Michigan’s central student governments sent out letters that denounced Israel. “They started calling out Hillel as well. Our Hillel has many different clubs relating to Israel, and it doesn’t take a firm stance on Israel.”

After interviewing five current college students who attended Jewish high schools, it also became apparent to me that the subject of differentiating between antisemitism and anti-Zionism had not been addressed by their high schools: All of them disagreed with leading scholars on the issue, or even contradicted themselves.

Maryland student Vogel, who struggled with explaining how antisemitism and anti-Zionism relate, said that part of her confusion lay in the fact that the Jewish community paints a picture of “two kinds of Zionism,” in that the first states that “Jews should have a state and Israel exists and it should exist,” while the other claims that “everything that Israel does is perfect and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, and you can’t attack Israel because it’s amazing.” Vogel said she disagreed with the second approach, explaining, “Israel is not perfect because it’s a country, and countries are not perfect, and people are not perfect. I think, if the Jewish community acknowledged the fact that those two kinds of Zionism are different ideas, that would help them create material that could better help students.”

Several students also expressed dissatisfaction with how their high school’s Israel advocacy programs approached the subject of dialogue with anti-Israel groups and students, saying that they did not stress its importance or outline how one might engage in it. Ariel Schultz, who attended the DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere and is now an incoming sophomore at Brandeis University, said that while his high school “definitely prepared” him to deal with anti-Zionism on campus, he thought that “they should be a lot more open to not even agreeing with the arguments, but bringing in speakers that maybe they disagree with,” stressing the importance in knowing what one will hear once on campus.

“My high school brought a lot of pro-Israel speakers, and they really instilled those values and pro-Jewish values in me, but hearing something you don’t want to hear, while scary for a high schooler, is important to do, because when you go to college you need to be prepared to hear ideas you’re not comfortable with.” Schultz explained that, when there was backlash on Brandeis’ campus in response to Israel week, “a lot of students were shocked and upset” because “they weren’t prepared … to engage those people in healthy conversation.”

Maryland student Vogel also explained that dialogue is crucial because “it’s very easy to hate people that you see as adversaries, or an ‘other,’” but dialogue “makes everyone more human.” She continued, “That doesn’t mean that you have to give in to someone else’s point, but it means that you’re seeing the other person as a person, which is a starting point for any kind of progress.”

Fortunately, high school Israel advocacy is not the only structure in place that aids Jewish students in fighting on-campus antisemitism. There are many on-campus resources that aid students in dealing with issues of antisemitism and anti-Zionism as they crop up, as well as paid fellowships and internships, in which a senior or graduate student can be paid to provide assistance with advocacy while they’re still in school, go to conferences and have a budget to bring in speakers. AIPAC, JNF (Jewish National Fund, StandWishUs and CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis) all have fellowship programs like these, and JNF also has a Caravan for Democracy initiative, which brings students, particularly non-Jews, to Israel in order to show them what Israeli society is really like. Many more on-campus programs are available to college students.

Although our community still has a lot of work to do, college students are eager to brainstorm ways to improve Israel advocacy for high schoolers so that they enter college prepared to confront antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Students like these are a valuable, untapped resource.

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