|The Jewish Journal
August 20, 2008
By Brad Greenberg
Quiet war on campus: Israel remains under attack despite fewer public protests
Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
The Anteaters for Israel began setup at 7 a.m., long before most students at University of California Irvine (UCI -- home of the Anteaters) had even crawled out of bed. Midterms be damned; the 60th anniversary of the modern Jewish state was a day away, and they wanted to celebrate. But even more, the Anteaters wanted to organize an inaugural response to the annual Palestinian Awareness Week, a parade of anti-Israel speakers that in May 2006 carried the theme, "Holocaust in the Holy Land."
The Anteaters' answer: iFest.
While vendors hawked art and clothes, hot links and Hawaiian coffee, Jewish students handed out postcards featuring a map of the Middle East placed over the body of a tanned, nearly naked man, with Israel represented by a Speedo-covered sliver: "Israel," the card stated, "it's not as big as you think."
Non-Jewish students, lured by the possibility of winning an iPod Touch, spent 60 seconds in a tunnel memorizing Israel's accomplishments. Sandwich boards lined Ring Road, the main walkway through campus, promoting Israel's softer side: humanitarian aid, democratic principles, agricultural advancements, technological achievements.
"I see a desert turned into an oasis, not only culturally or economically or politically but literally," said Zack Sher, a self-described "Larry David, curly hair, matzah ball soup on the weekend kind of Jew," who was promoting his spiritual homeland from inside a pink gorilla suit. "This is our chance to give Israel some positive visibility."
At UCI, positive visibility is the least Israel needs. For those involved in college Jewish life across the country, Irvine has become synonymous with campus anti-Semitism -- a holdover from the Second Intifada, a flashbang of anti-Israel speakers invited to campus by pro-Palestinian students.
Elsewhere the M.O. for attacking the Jewish state has evolved since anti-Israel campus activism first exploded onto the scene in 2002 during the Second Intifada. It has since taken root in academic departments and been emboldened by the outspoken criticism of a former U.S. president. Although many college campuses appear to have dropped the vitriol and the confrontational protests over Israel, the attacks on the Jewish state have moved deep inside the Ivory Towers. Despite an ethos that university students should question everything, many feel uncomfortable and unprepared in challenging their professors. Apathy, pro-Israel campus advocates say, is quietly eroding support for the Jewish state, even among Jews.
At UCI, the approach of Israel's opponents has long been less subtle. And yet, this is not your big brother's UCI.
When Daniel Alouan enrolled in 2000, he found campus life so uncomfortable he couldn't conceive finishing his degree in Irvine. Each week, he said, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) would bring another speaker to campus who would trash Israel and slander its supporters as Nazis. Fliers for Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and Hillel, apolitical ones that simply said "Shabbat Shalom," would conspicuously disappear from approved locations. Jewish students showed the fear in their faces.
"Every time you would go somewhere, they knew you were a Jewish guy, and they wanted to know that," Alouan said. "They never threw rocks; they would just call names and say stuff. They told me, 'Go to Russia where you came from.' My dad is from Lebanon and mom from Syria. But they think all Jews come from Russia."
Alouan, now 26 and back in his native Brazil, left UCI after his sophomore year in 2002 and enrolled at University of Pennsylvania, where, according to Hillel, 30 percent of undergraduate and graduate students identify as Jewish.
But even Penn has had moments in recent memory that made members of the Jewish community cringe. Penn President Amy Gutmann still catches criticism for posing at her Halloween party two years ago with a student dressed as a suicide bomber, something she later said was a mistake.
Indeed, no school is immune. And during the next month, as thousands of Jewish students ship off to begin their college careers and many more return to continue it, they will be reminded that it really is different being Jewish.
Some will be surprised to hear Jewish professors condemn Zionism; others shocked that campus activism could be so uncivil. But many, many more will move from class to class and party to party without paying much mind to the din around them and having even less of an idea of what else they could do.
"The Jewish community is like a deer in the headlights," said Charles Jacobs, president and co-founder of The David Project, which, along with StandWithUs, has been a grass-roots leader in raising awareness about and educating students to combat academic anti-Zionism. "Most of the stuff on campus is not a Jew getting hit over the head, but it is this slow build of Israel is bad, Israel is bad, Israel is bad."
The challenges vary from campus to campus. Statistically speaking, no one knows just how pervasive anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are on American campuses. No one is keeping score. But many Jewish leaders say anecdotal reports of conflict with pro-Palestinian students and faculty have declined dramatically.
"The amount of anti-Israel activity on campus is so negligible that it is almost impossible for students to find unless they are looking on all but maybe three campuses a year," said Jonathan Kessler, director of student programs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
At the same time, though, scholarly criticism of Zionism and the American-Israel relationship has achieved new respectability. This is most recognizable in the popularity of the "The Israel Lobby" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former President Jimmy Carter's best-selling "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."
The effect is already apparent on many college campuses, where Palestinian awareness weeks are now called "anti-apartheid week." At UCI, the old name remains, but the general themes and speech topics incorporate the apartheid paradigm.
"The reality is that verbal anti-Semitism spurred by controversial student groups unfortunately continues to exist on campus," five UCI Jewish student leaders stated in a March letter supporting the administration. "However, Jewish student life is able to expand and prosper due to the constructive approach taken by Hillel Foundation of Orange County and Jewish Federation, in conjunction with the support of UCI Administration."
Despite improvements in organized Jewish life, UCI remains far from a quiet campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anti-Israelism there is unique from that alleged at other universities because, instead of emanating from left-wing Mideast studies professors, it begins with the students.
That much was evident from the presence of Muslim students along the edges of iFest, where they were handing out fliers for a speech that evening from Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Israel darling who wrote "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" and in January praised Hezbollah as representing "hope."
The Finkelstein lecture, which came at the midpoint of Israel's campus celebration, would usher in the pro-Palestinian students' own week focusing on that small slice of the Levant. Their events, anchored on Ring Road around a mock security wall from which a blood-stained Israeli flag hung, were promoted under the heading, "Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust."
"Freedom of speech on this campus is a little over the line," said Ryan Stomel, a third-year student from Westlake Village who never wears his Alpha Epsilon Pi letters. "I can handle myself, but at certain times it is intense and hostile. I'm not going to go around wearing a Jewish star because you never know what is going to happen."
The chancellorship at UCI came with a heavy tariff for Michael Drake.
When he took over in July 2005, the campus had earned a reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel rhetoric and demonstrations. The school has a relatively small Jewish community, less than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students out of a total student population of about 25,000, and UCI's Muslim Student Union was regularly bringing to campus speakers who praised suicide bombers as freedom fighters and trashed Israelis as Nazis. Dialogue had descended into diatribes, and some Jewish students had complained of feeling unsafe; a few, like Alouan, had left.
Worse yet, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Civil Rights was investigating more than two-dozen claims from Jewish and non-Jewish students who alleged being harassed on campus for supporting Israel. Many in the Jewish community felt the UCI administration was too hands-off, that they were hiding behind the First Amendment and the function of academia as an open forum for the challenging and stretching of ideas.
"One person's hate speech is another person's education," Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor of student affairs, reportedly said during an October 2006 meeting with Drake and about a dozen Jewish student leaders.
(In a recent interview, Gomez characterized that quote, which was reported by one participant, as "another distortion" and said his point was that students are protected constitutionally when their speech causes discomfort and even emotional pain, as long as it doesn't incite violence.)
Then this past February, a task force on anti-Semitism, originally assembled by the executive director of UCI Hillel and later cut loose, released a 34-page report condemning university officials for turning a blind eye to anti-Semitic activism and shirking its responsibility to ensure the safety of every student on campus.
The Orange County Independent Task Force didn't reserve its blast for the administration but scattered buckshot across local Jewish communal leadership. It implored organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Orange County to stop talking and start doing, and it urged Drake to "publicly identify and denounce hate speech."
As for "students with a strong Jewish identity," the task force recommended they look elsewhere.
The crescendo in what has seemed a very long saga came a month later in Washington, when Hillel invited Drake to speak on an opening-session panel, "Fostering a More Civil Society," at its annual international summit.
Drake spoke generally for seven minutes without mentioning the elephant in the room. And there was no denying its presence. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) had castigated Hillel for hosting Drake, and ZOA President Morton Klein was seated a few rows from the front. As soon as the question and answer portion began, Klein challenged Drake's desire to stay content-neutral.
"Let me just make it clear," Drake responded. "We absolutely deplore and reject hate speech and bigotry, anti-Semitism. We reject and deplore those absolutely and in every way that it occurs. People bring divisive messages to [all of] our campuses. We reject those intellectually; emotionally we find them repugnant; we find them repugnant morally."
For Klein and many other supporters of Israel, Drake's statement, which has been repeated in various iterations, wasn't nearly strong enough.
"He has condemned anti-Semitism generally," Klein said in a recent interview, "but has not condemned these programs by name and, therefore, has not told the Muslim students that the lies they are disseminating are at odds with what the university stands for."
A UCI spokeswoman said Drake would be unavailable for this article and offered Gomez, who said problems on campus have been exaggerated and that the university is reducing tension by creating channels for dialogue.
"It's like an earthquake," Gomez said of UCI's public image. "The farther away you are, the more damage you think was done."
Some moments have been uglier than others, he said, but laws have not been broken and the university has served its role as a forum for the free exchange of ideas. Indeed, after completing its investigation last November, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights declined to pursue further action against the university. Gomez trumpeted this as an exoneration of unwarranted accusations.
"Discomfort is not in and of itself bad for learning," he said back in May, after indulging at the open-air hookah bar during iFest. "It's called stretching and wrestling with ideas."
However, the Office of Civil Rights confirmed in its report that many of the complaints had merit. The case was dropped because each complaint was either more than 180 days old when reported, and therefore inactionable, or was outside the office's authority. The day is not done, though. A separate investigation continues into complaints of anti-Semitic harassment from May 2007.
"We're not hospitals or community centers or synagogues or political action committees. We're not think tanks or action centers, nor do we advance ideological allegiances and agendas. Democracy works best through compelling political advocacy, but universities don't exist to advocate. We're there to teach students to think for themselves, to develop their analytical tools and critical skills. What students do with those tools and skills is theirs to determine, not ours."
Harry Mairson, a computer science professor at Brandeis University, shared that sentiment this spring during a feisty Hillel breakout session about preserving campus civility. (The irony was painfully apparent.) And it was clear Mairson believed what he said. Last year, when he was chair of the faculty senate, Mairson wrote a personal invitation asking Carter to speak at Brandeis about his book.
Mairson was motivated by lingering concern over the university administration's decision in 2006 to remove an Israeli student's class project titled, "Voices of Palestine." The exhibit had featured drawings by teenagers in a Palestinian refugee camp and depicted the poverty and tragedy of their lives, along with descriptions of the teens' hobbies and career hopes.
"I believed that my university had the responsibility and capacity to deal with these painful political issues," Mairson said, "and that the academic integrity of the university, compromised by censorship, needed repair."
No secular American university is more recognizably Jewish than Brandeis, which was founded in 1948 and named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. More than half of the university's 3,100 undergraduates identify as Jewish, which translates into even more debate of what that means.
The campus community was divided over Carter's scheduled visit, but when he spoke in January 2007, the 82-year-old former president packed the gym with about 1,700 students, faculty and community members. About 200 students wore buttons that stated, "Pro Israel, Pro Peace," and the Boston Globe reported Carter received loud applause when he rebutted accusations that he was an anti-Semite.
Inviting criticism of Israel onto campus and into classrooms has drawn periodic hand-wringing from the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, which sparked quite the brouhaha with its publication in late 2006 of "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism."
But to some in the community, the energy major Jewish organizations had devoted to college campuses seemed an afterthought. Enter The David Project and StandWithUs, both of which have grown meteorically in less than 10 years.
StandWithUs, based in Los Angeles, has been intimately involved in combating attacks on Israel at UCI, mainly by providing materials to counter misinformation about Israel and by protesting controversial speakers. Its biggest concern, said national director Roz Rothstein, is the occurrence of anti-Israel attacks emanating from the faculty.
"When professors turn their classroom into a hostage-keeping territory where students are not given context and background and another side -- they just push their perspective -- it is really unfair to the students. And this is an issue across the country," Rothstein said. "This is not on every single campus, but it is on far too many campuses."
Student responses vary, but the model of protesting and counterprotesting has gone stale. Some students are intimidated to challenge a professor's criticism of Israel -- Rothstein said she has worked with students who have been harassed to the point they withdraw from a course -- while others seek a measured response within the context of academic discourse.
When "The Israel Lobby's" Walt spoke at Tufts University last November, there were angry students but no protests. Instead, after a quiet visit, Amy Spitalnick, the student president of Tufts Hillel, wrote an op-ed for the campus paper criticizing Walt's thesis.
"I lived in Jerusalem; I sat in class looking over the West Bank; I had friends of friends killed by suicide bombers," she said in an interview. "The situation sucks. But the old model of lobbing cruise missile after cruise missile doesn't work."
About 300 students gathered this May around the flagpoles just off Ring Road at UCI. Many wore kaffiyehs and olive-green shirts featuring a Palestinian throwing a rock at an Israeli tank and the words, "To Exist Is to Resist."
What they heard as classmates strolled by during lunch was an oddly optimistic jeremiad from Amir Abdel Malik Ali.
"The fall of the American empire, brothers and sisters, means the fall of Zionism, the fall of apartheid!" Malik Ali said in typically fiery oratory. "American empire is going down just like other empires have gone down. So you have to make preparations. Joe and Jane Six-Pack are going to realize that, no, America is not No. 1; no, America is not supreme; no, America is not superior and no America is not the good guy."
Malik Ali, the imam of an Oakland mosque, was giving the first of his two sermons to conclude Palestinian awareness week. He's been a favorite speaker of the MSU since early in the Second Intifada. Others have included Muhammad Al-Asi, a Washington imam who calls Israel "the monkey on the American back," and Finkelstein, who the previous week repeated his claim that Jews abuse memories of the Holocaust and exaggerate anti-Semitism for political gain and said the IDF intentionally killed Palestinian children.
Four Muslim students stood behind Malik Ali while he spoke, holding a large banner proclaiming, "Death to Apartheid." Some Jewish students were seated in the crowd on the steps above the flagpoles. The president of the Anteaters for Israel was standing behind the large banner, holding a white board on which he wrote statements like "Stop the lies -- Israel is a democracy." Other Jewish students carried signs stating, "Caution -- Hate Speech Zone Ahead."
"The Islamic revival," Malik Ali continued, "should only be feared by those who support imperialism, colonialism, racism, occupation. Those are the only groups who should fear the Islamic revival. Because when groups like Hamas and Hezbollah -- and no these are not terrorists," he said, bridging into an attack on Israel as an apartheid state and later adding, "The terrorists are the United States; the terrorists are Israel!"
Chants of "Allahu Akbar!" rose from the audience.
Soon after, a group gathered above the steps and, led by Malik Ali and the MSU president, marched down Ring Road chanting:
"Judaism, yes! Zionism, no!"
"Judaism, yes! Zionism, no!"
"The state of Israel has got to go!"
"The state of Israel has got to go!"
After about five minutes, a circle formed and Omar Zarka, MSU president, stepped inside.
"We are not here to feel happy," he said. "The struggle continues, and it goes on from here today."
The scene, save for the language of Zarka's charge, was reminiscent of one from 2007, when a few dozen Muslim students interrupted a lecture by Daniel Pipes, stormed out of the hall and then proceeded through campus, concluding with a pronouncement from one of the participants that "it's just a matter of time before Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth!"
Often called a radical student organization, MSU has found it difficult to attract good media attention -- the Pipes incident was filmed by a Jewish student and aired on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" -- which helps explain why UCI Muslim students are tighter-lipped than a grand jury when approached by a journalist. Numerous attempts at speaking generally with Muslim students about their feelings toward Jews were deflected to MSU leadership.
But after Malik Ali's speech and before being interrupted and told not to speak with this reporter, one of the students holding the "Death to Apartheid" banner opened up.
"Jews are a people of a religion, a faith. Zionism was seen as an idea to bring together, to reinvigorate the Hebrew language and Judaism," said the unidentified student, who sported a short beard, white kaffiyeh and black headband with "There is one God -- Allah" in Arabic script. "But as soon as it turned into exiling a people from land, that's when it turned from an angelic thought to a satanic thought."
The official message from the MSU is that they don't hate Jews, just Zionism.
"I can't tell by looking at someone if they are Jewish," Zarka said in an interview limited to one question. "If someone tells me they are Jewish, I don't assume they are a Zionist. But if somebody tells me 'I am an imperialist; I think we should go pillage countries,' obviously I will have a problem with that."
This distinction hasn't always been clear to Jewish students -- or, obviously, any more comforting.
"To the extent that students are being challenged on campus about Israel, those questions that are being raised are increasingly existential questions," said David A. Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. "They are not discreet questions about Israeli policies but are asking whether Israel has a right to exist. Is Zionism racism? Does Israel practice apartheid? Those are not the easiest questions to answer."
Still, Jewish life is thriving on campuses across the country. Thanks to Birthright Israel, more than 20,000 Jews, ages 18 to 26, will take free trips the Jewish state this year and, the organization hopes, bring back to their campus a newfound love for Israel -- and Zionism.
"We are watching a pride in Israel activism, in Israel evangelism, that has been unknown on the campus in 50 years," Firestone of Hillel said in an interview during the March summit.
Firestone admitted that his observation runs contrary to what recent studies of young Jews have found, specifically the "Beyond Distancing" paper published last summer by sociologists from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman found that only 48 percent of American Jews under 35 would consider Israel's destruction a "personal tragedy."
"It is at odds with what we are seeing happening on campus," Firestone said. "Jewish pride, Jewish interest, Jewish journeys is at an all-time."
At UCI, steps are being taken to change the debate on Israel, or at least provide real-life education on the situation, through the Olive Tree Initiative. This week, a delegation of 16 Muslim and Jewish students will leave Orange County for Tel Aviv, where they will begin a two-week journey through Israel.
"If we want to change the situation on campus, that is not going to come from the leadership. It is going to come from the bottom up," said Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel and a participant in the initiative. "We're not out to get anyone; hopefully they are not out to get us. So we're working together, and the Olive Tree Initiative is definitely a step forward."
With any luck, the trip will help change at least the tenor of discourse on campus this school year. The long-term challenge across the country will be keeping Jewish students concerned with the future of Israel and its image on campus.
"There will be ups and downs," said Jacobs of The David Project. "This year we did very good because Jewish students were taking a proactive role because of Israel at 60, so they dominated the conversation in a way they hadn't. But it was only because there was a national push."