What's Wrong with Advice for Dealing with Zionophobia on Campus

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

Observations from Columbia University Campus

This article was first published in parts (part1, part2, part3) in the Elder of Ziyon blog.

Thank you John Kovac and Naomi Cohn for many helpful edits.

What is the more likely reality on campus?

A toxic anti-Israel climate on college campuses is on the rise. This increase in Zionophobia is a source of anxiety to Jewish students and their parents. Students are wondering what awaits them on campus and how to best navigate the hostile environment of academia. Parents are wondering what can be done to protect their children and combat Jew hatred at their school. With the next school year approaching, there has been no dearth of advice from professional advice-givers of mainstream Jewish organizations and well-meaning intellectuals. But how effective has this avalanche of advice been?

Recently I read a blog in the Times of Israel entitled "Before you head to campus, read this." The author acknowledges that "many campuses have become ground-zero for anti-Israel activism" and advises pro-Israel students "to be knowledgeable enough, open to talking with others in your circle, willing to grapple with complexity, and confidently owning your identity." When it comes to Israel, the advice is to "discuss with nuance and sophistication, not bombast" and to "understand that there is more to every student than where they stand on this issue. Disagreements on Israel shouldn’t be the only thing keeping individuals or student groups from interacting."

In broad daylight on Broadway in front of the main entrance to Columbia University campus. This is the reality of Jewish experience on a toxic anti-Israel campus. As a Jewish student, are you prepared to see this at the main entrance to your campus?

It is solid advice that might work well on campuses where pro-Israel students are confronted by peers who, as the TOI piece states, "may have never met a Jew before and for whom Israel is simply a faraway country." If only such open-minded peers who are genuinely ignorant about Israel were the main problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality on many problematic campuses and this sensible advice has a fatal flaw as it presupposes that one's opponents are acting in good faith, i.e., that they are fair people, sincere in their beliefs, open to examining whether these beliefs are based on the truth, and are willing to change their minds if shown contrary facts. If only it were possible to prevail in arguments by "discuss[ing] [Israel] with nuance and sophistication" as the article recommends. If only it were possible to educate by a calm presentation of facts and reason. If only it were possible to win sympathy by explaining what Israel means to the Jewish people who were exiled by the Romans and persecuted in the Diaspora. If only it were possible to win admiration by extolling the miraculous success of the tiny nation of refugees who, surrounded by enemies, overcame tremendous odds and who, by sheer hard work and intellectual brilliance, created amazing technologies and medical breakthroughs benefiting the entire world. If only it were possible to win empathy by pointing out how Israel has been always the first nation to help in a disaster, even when the disaster strikes its enemies. If only it were possible to win hearts and minds by dispelling lies. If only...

The level of Zionophobia fueled by BDS-inspired Jew hatred is not the same on every campus. Anti-Israel activities are concentrated in a small number of prestigious campuses popular with Jewish students; the larger the Jewish student population the more pervasive is the anti-Israel hostility. The worst anti-Israel schools tend to be prominent, prestigious universities that wield enormous influence and generate the largest amount of publicity. Averaging anti-Israel sentiment of Columbia University which had 108 incidents recorded by AMCHA or New York University which had 75 incidents with Appalachian State University which had 4 incidents or Bradley University which had 1 incident distorts the reality. It tempers what it feels like to be an isolated pro-Israel student on a campus with an active pro-BDS movement fueled by aggressive chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow and J Street U, where professors are anti-Israel propagandists, where Hillel eschews involvement beyond anodyne statements and serving Shabbat dinners to avoid antagonizing their liberal donors, and where the administrators—the supposed "adults in the room"—are intimidated by, if not openly complicit with, the students and faculty claiming for themselves the exclusive right to be the arbiters of human rights and social justice.

Anti-Israelism on campus is pervasive.

As a Jew, how comfortable are you walking by the Apartheid Wall as this one at Columbia University?

To appreciate the intensity of what pro-Israel students face on an actively anti-Israel campus, watch this excerpt from an excellent documentary "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus" or consider an article from the New York Post entitled "Israeli student at Columbia says she’s being bullied by Palestinian group" that stated,