Rarely a week passes without the Jewish news filing yet another story of a University boycott against the State of Israel. All the usual players come out and denounce the actions as racist, anti-democratic and some even go as far as to hint to anti-Semitic or even fundamentalist Islamic conspiracies. Then they go silent.
Jewish students are coming under increasing pressure to disavow their heritage and nationhood on near-unprecedented levels. Dialogue and discussion is being shut down and cultural and academic links severed. Universities, cherished places of learning and aspiration, are in some respects becoming threatening places to be a Zionist, or even Jewish student.
Yet short of making noise, much of the established Jewish world is doing little to help students come to terms with the new reality. As the percentage of Jewish teenagers studying in Hebrew Day School rises (there are now 38 Jewish schools in Britain alone), many Jewish students come to University totally unprepared for their new multi-cultural, politically diverse and often challenging environment. Too many Jewish students move away from home, leave their traditional support base behind and only then find that they are living down the hallway from Trotskyites, far-right sympathisers and in rare, though not unheard of cases, would-be Jihadists. Jewish students are at best forced into silence, or worse intimidated and bullied.
This is all the more troubling due to the marked retreat of organisations and funds from the arena. The World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) has seen a sharp squeeze in funding and a widespread lack of understanding at the very time that the community should be stepping up and increasing activities for Jewish students on campus. It comes as no surprise that last week it was York University that caught a brief headline for its boycott of Israel as, inspite of some great activists on the ground, Canadian Jewish students have lacked fundamental self-leadership for the last two years. In January at the annual WUJS Congress in Jerusalem, Canadian students (once coming in their tens to attend the week-long seminar in Hasbara training) were noticeably absent in their entirety. With students from as far away as Chile and Australia it was an unfortunate scenario that no Canadian student could be funded by the community to attend, or even to vote, at the Congress. This was despite numerous appeals to organizations and private individuals.
WUJS Congress is one of the few opportunities for Jewish students from around the world to meet and share their experiences in fighting anti-Semitism and boycotts on campus as well as learning how to set up and run their own Jewish programs. Though still attracting students in their hundreds, the Congress is now running on such a tight budget that limited funding can be given out to help delegates afford the flights to and from Israel. Applications and proxy votes for last years Congress were received from India, Hungary and Argentina and yet most had to be denied due to funding cuts.
There is a very simple realisation across the Jewish student world. Where there is a strong base of student activists, running their own programming and directly spending their own funds there is a healthier, more productive and more effective Jewish scene. One needs only to look at the huge successes, scored against huge challenges, that the Union of Jewish Students of UK and Ireland (UJS) or the Australsian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) notch up to realise that when students are in control of their own destinies the politics work.
More needs to be done to directly support these localised and student based organizations in their political struggles. The recent trend of glossy, media savvy Hasbara agencies descending onto campus does much to warm the hearts of parents back at home, lulled into the false security that their children are becoming twitter-warriors and new-media activists but it does little to actually change facts on the ground. The simple plea to nurture the grassroots is just not getting through.
So too worrying is the expectation that highly funding religious-based organisations that run boozy Shabbat dinners and cheap trips to exotic destinations with celebrity Rabbis will protect Jewish students in a sort of cocoon of Jewish identity and culture. The bubble is quickly burst when an anti-Israel motion comes to the student council and the best thing that the newly-frum student can shout at the top of his lungs is that “G-d gave us this land!”
The Jewish community is still feigning shock as intermarriage rates rise, Jewish students turn to radical causes and more and more choose to isolate themselves to “Jewish-friendly” colleges. Doors of institutions, that took older generations years to prise open, are now being allowed to slowly shut as Jewish students increasingly temper their aspirations or out-and-out lie about their backgrounds or political beliefs. A renaissance is waiting to take place across campuses. Jewish students, many of them seeing Israel for the first time on Birthright trips, are eager to stand up and defend their spiritual homeland. It is a shame that many in the Jewish community are not willing to look past the brochures and websites of outside organizations and instead fund students and their unions directly.