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Rude Awakenings

May 9, 2009 | by

Jewish students are becoming more defiant in the Middle East wars on U.S. campuses.

Courtesy of National Review

When the Arab-Israeli conflict flared again, the reaction on campus was dramatic. It could have been expected to be anti-Israel, and severely so; but it was even more anti-Israel than usual. It was more anti-Semitic, too. (Sadly, these two "anti-"s seem to be going together more and more lately.) Also unusual, however, was the response of pro-Israel students and faculty, chiefly Jews: They were more determined, less cringing, more defiant than in the past. More willing to talk back, and to fight back. A writer in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz sensed that an "awakening" was going on, and that a period of "passive vulnerability" was expiring. This sense is widely shared. Moreover, Jews on campus are reconsidering their politics and alliances. The word "realignment" is being spoken a lot. Many students and teachers are undergoing "second thoughts," to use the phrase of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, who took a sharp turn from '60s radicalism. "After 9/11, everything changed," people say. Some things actually may be.

The press has been full of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic acts from campus lately, of which some of the "highlights" are these: bricks through windows of Hillel centers (Hillel being the international college Jewish organization); swastikas painted on Hillel walls and doors; the word "Zionazi" coined and sprayed; anti-Jewish libels, ancient and modern, spread through student newspapers and websites; jeering anti-Israel demonstrations on, of all days, Holocaust Remembrance Day; retrospective praise for the Nazis. (As in the Middle East itself, enemies of Israel on campus have trouble deciding whether the Israelis are Nazis, or the Nazis are to be hailed.) The worst case occurred at San Francisco State University, where a group of Jewish students, who had participated in a peace rally, had to be escorted to safety by police, from a howling, hate-spewing mob. (Sample screams: "Get out or we will kill you!" and "Hitler didn't finish the job!")

Jewish students and faculty feel that they are under siege.

Even where events are less appalling, Jewish students and faculty feel that they are under siege, forced to explain or defend "their" state, or even their status as Jews. The Left's last great campus cause was the anti-apartheid one; it was the last time, whatever their methods or proposed solutions, they had anything like the moral high ground. They are seeking it again, through anti-Israeli activism and rhetoric, including a strong linkage to apartheid. That Israel, like the old Boer Republic, is an "apartheid state" is almost an article of faith on many campuses today. Pro-Arab, anti-Israeli groups are joined by sundry more traditional leftist groups -- environmentalists, "racial justice" advocates, anti-globalizers -- which stuns and chagrins many Jews, previously comfortable in their liberalism. Michael Granoff, a "lay leader" of the Hillel Foundation, voices a common sentiment when he says, "The reaction of the human-rights community has been disappointing to many of us who consider ourselves left of center, but who see this conflict in a different way." The U.N.'s Durban conference, he says -- an affair that proved grossly anti-Semitic -- was a "rude awakening," a "very sobering experience." And only days later came the September 11 attacks, coupled, in short order, with a renewing of the Israel question.


Harvard, as usual, has been the focus of particular attention. Of the many striking events that have occurred there recently, the most notable was the circulation of a "divestment" petition, calling on the university to withdraw its investments from Israel and "U.S. companies that sell arms to Israel." (The petition was a joint effort with neighboring MIT.) In this way, the linkage of the anti-apartheid cause to the anti-Israel cause was explicit and profound. Of all the states in the world, only Israel was so abhorrent as to warrant a complete "divestment." Over 120 faculty members at the two universities signed the petition. This shook Jews and others on those campuses, and a counter-petition was circulated, opposing and denouncing the first petition. Almost 600 faculty signed that one, in an impressive act of "talking back."

Ruth Wisse is the noted scholar of Yiddish and political essayist; she is a prominent conservative at Harvard. Prof. Wisse says that recent events have "changed the atmosphere for every thinking person on campus." Current tensions pit professor against professor, student against student (even roommate against roommate), and professor against student (an especially fragile situation for a student). "Malice toward Israel and those who support it," says Prof. Wisse, "is now acceptable among people who might have felt the same way before but took pains not to make it visible." Jewish students are being, not merely challenged, but "assaulted" on the question of Israel, in class and elsewhere. And "they've never really encountered this before. Israel has not been popular with the Left, with the in-crowd, for many years, but this hostility is really of a different magnitude." Prof. Wisse has had "a run of students come to see me -- ones I don't even know. They are rattled. Seriously rattled."

And yet these students, too, are talking back and fighting back, expressing support for Israel -- and for American policy -- in various ways. They have participated in rallies, written for journals, and, in one case, even started one. (Harvard senior-to-be Rachel Zabarkes founded the Harvard Israel Review. She is presently a summer intern at National Review.) Traditionally liberal Jewish students are enjoying the company of some perhaps-surprising allies. The Harvard Republican Club held its annual dinner at the school's Hillel chapter, pointing toward "a new coalition of students who are concerned for Israel's security and America's alike," as Prof. Wisse puts it. Hillel has not historically been the scene of a great many Republican dinners.

Over at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, something similar is taking place. This campus has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel feeling. Toward the end of the last term -- to cite only one "highlight" -- a conference called "Perspectives on the Muslim World: Unveiling the Truth" was staged. It was sponsored by a number of university entities, including the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Department of Sociology, the Arab Students Association, the Black Student Union, and the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs -- the gang was all there. A book was sold at the conference, and only one book: The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics, featuring a chapter entitled "The Myth of the Holocaust." About this tract, no more need be said. Under pressure, the organizers issued an apology.

"This fight is about democracy and freedom everywhere."

As at Harvard and elsewhere, pro-Israel students in Ann Arbor are piping up; and as at Harvard and elsewhere, they are doing so with untraditional allies. David Livshiz, a student associated with Hillel, says, "Hillel is a progressive organization, and most people would declare themselves Democrats or liberals. But when we organized a demonstration to support Israel, we got tremendous support from the College Republicans and YAF [Young Americans for Freedom]. Some said, initially, 'We don't want to work with right-wing groups on campus,' but those students have changed their minds. We will work with anyone who stands with us on Israel, and in the fight against terrorism, in the fight for America. Some of the strict liberals seem to think America deserved to get bombed on 9/11. But we see that this fight is about democracy and freedom everywhere."

Again, it was San Francisco State that provided the ugliest news. The mob attack that occurred there on May 7 has had reverberations around the world. Laurie Zoloth, who directs the Jewish Studies program at SFSU, wrote an eloquent, gripping account of the attack, which she sent to her colleagues on the faculty. This report made its way, by e-mail, literally around the globe, prompting a huge response.

The San Francisco case is instructive in many ways. As Prof. Zoloth points out -- not at all disapprovingly -- SFSU's is "an extraordinarily left-wing campus." On the day in question, Jewish students were holding their peace rally on -- what else? -- Malcolm X Plaza (and outside the Cesar Chavez Student Union). This was hardly a right-wing or Likudnik or even Republican gathering. Students sang peace songs, bore both Israeli and Palestinian flags, and wore T-shirts reading "PEACE" in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. And, for their trouble, they came within an inch of bodily harm. All they suffered was spit, death threats, and shock.

Some administrators and faculty expressed a right concern, others did not. One department chairman remarked that the mere fact of a peace rally held by Jews was "provocative" -- "like Sharon going to the Temple Mount." Another attitude, says Prof. Zoloth, was that "boys will be boys," and that passions must have been running high on "both sides." It was even claimed that the Arab counter-demonstrators were provoked by the presence of police barricades, placed between the Jewish students and their attackers, for "it is culturally inappropriate to put barricades in front of Palestinians." Prof. Zoloth cannot help wondering whether people would believe that the incident had even taken place, if not for the instant testimony of eyewitnesses (chiefly herself), the ensuing journalistic interest -- and the fortunate evidence of police videos.

Not surprisingly, she is undergoing "second thoughts." She is thinking about leaving the campus, because how can one work, in Jewish Studies, in such a climate, and how can one recruit? "Come to SFSU, where you'll feel right at home!" Jewish students have found it prudent to tuck Stars of David under their shirts. Laurie Zoloth reflects the anguish that many in her position are experiencing around the country:

"There has been widespread discussion among Jews on the left, with a strong history on the left. I myself ask, 'How does a movement that I care about -- a progressive movement -- make such a dramatic misassessment? How could it possibly legitimize Yasser Arafat? How could it have gone wrong?' Lay that against what should be done in this war, or the general question of love of country, and, yes: It gives one pause. I am very devoted to the Democratic party, and here I am, talking to a very conservative, Republican magazine [i.e., National Review]. And yet it is very important to hear the truth from whatever quarter it emerges. This is a time for thinking about issues in a different way. September 11 raises questions, the politics of the Middle East raise questions . . . and all of this tends toward realignment."


In the meantime, Jewish students and other well-wishers of Israel have had to adjust, fast. The Hillel Foundation has formed a new Israel-affairs department, which plans to provide "rapid responses." It is also taking kids from around the country to Israel, to give them a better understanding of what is occurring in that region. In the U.S., an Israeli group called Upstart Activist is distributing kits and conducting seminars, advising students on how to combat anti-Israel stunts, campaigns, and "guerrilla theater" on campus. (The group's motto is from Ecclesiastes: "A time to keep silence, a time to speak.") These Upstart Activists would match the opposition stunt for stunt. For example, anti-Israeli activists like to set up "checkpoints" on their campuses, in imitation of the Israeli checkpoints. (Yet no one is attempting to pass through wearing an explosives belt, presumably.) The Israeli group calls for similar "creativity" and, naturally, "chutzpah," in the form of "chalk outlines," "mock funerals for terror victims," and the like.

"This generation will not be allowed to sit on the fence."

Of course, not every Jewish student or teacher wants to be a pro-Israel activist, or even to be involved in this drama. Far from it. By any reasonable assessment, most Jewish students would like to remain typical American collegians, going to class (or not), drinking beer, and cheering for the football team. But these students are liable to be sucked into the drama, in times so fraught. As Hillel's Michael Granoff says, "Only a minority of Jewish students are activists in any sense. Most are really bewildered by anti-Israel or anti-Semitic statements or actions. And they don't have the tools to respond. They may have a gut instinct to defend Israel, but they can't articulate what they feel." Harvard's Prof. Wisse notes that "a lot of these kids are unfairly put on the defensive, lacking the facts to fight back. And yet this generation, like others, in clutch time, will not be allowed to sit on the fence."

When they tip from that fence, it may well be in a rightward direction. Stories of such movement abound, including one from Rabbi Elazar Meisels, a Torah instructor in Michigan. In one of his classes, he says, "the talk got around to anti-Israel media bias, and the most vocal of this bunch -- a real liberal -- just kept going on the topic." Rabbi Meisels recommended that he take a look at National Review and its website. "And this fellow looks at me incredulously and says, 'That's Bill Buckley! I can't do that!' And I said, 'Why not? They're saying what you're saying, but with more facts and better English.'" The gentleman soon became hooked. Rabbi Meisels admits to enjoying the "discomfiture of liberals" on display before him. "They have such a difficult time trying to justify their past beliefs and trying to maintain them. I've been watching this progression. I've got a group of guys I teach every week. They've been complete liberals, never hearing other arguments, blaming Israel for everything, blaming the settlements -- and they're shifting. Conservative ideas and policies are getting a respectful hearing. It's so much easier [for a conservative] to talk to people now."

Michael Granoff hints at something similar, contending that the recent ordeal "hasn't made Jewish students more conservative," but "has made them more open-minded, more willing to question the credentials of some of the people they previously held in high esteem."

Some caught in the maelstrom are beginning to sound an awful lot like conservatives, a fact which may unnerve them. SFSU's Laurie Zoloth, in her famous letter, says that, as the mob cornered the Jews, she herself was not afraid. She was "really more sad that I could not protect my students. Not one administrator came to stand with us. I knew that if a crowd of Palestinian or Black students had been there, surrounded by a crowd of white racists screaming racist threats, shielded by police, the faculty and staff would have no trouble deciding which side to stand on." Any conservative will easily recognize that kind of speech. In Israel itself, lefties are having to scrape "Peace Now" bumper stickers off their cars, lest they look absurd. Recantations are heard and seen. Shlomo Avineri, a professor at Hebrew University and an erstwhile member of the "peace camp," wrote in Ha'aretz last fall, "Whoever expected Yasser Arafat to turn into Nelson Mandela was proved wrong, but admitting it is hard. Incredibly hard...It was hard for those seduced by the charms of the Soviet Union to see that it was a ruthless, oppressive country, but that was the truth...[For a peaceful settlement] there is no partner on the other side. It hurts, but that is the truth."

This new worldwide war, and the trauma of the Middle East, are having deep effects. We seem to be in another terrible time for choosing.


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