“The war is still on here, and now we’ll be in a war on the US campus battlefield.”
Many of us who read that piece might have barely blinked at Sharansky’s words. At first, it didn’t particularly grab my attention. But then I stopped for a second and thought about it a bit more.
“The US campus battlefield.”
We see it all the time. College campuses are a “front” in the global “battle” for Israel’s security – or maybe for Israel’s right to exist, depending on who we ask. Jewish students are “on the front lines.” They are “combating” Anti-Semitism. The language we hear from Sharansky and other Jewish leaders is unmistakable: Jews on college campuses: you are heading off to battle. You are soldiers fighting for the Jewish cause – the state of Israel.
To many, that sentiment seems about right. They believe that the state of Israel is facing existential threats, so talking about “battles” or “combat” is incredibly logical. I would argue, however, that for those who care about the Jewish community, regardless of your political orientation towards Israel, these phrases are incredibly harmful.
Some might be ready for me to launch into an argument about non-violence. That’s not where I’m going with this, though. The reason the above phrases are harmful has nothing to do with pacifism. The language that Sharansky uses, and that Jewish communal organizations use all the time, is incredibly damaging for a very different reason. It sends the following tragic message to students: you are a means to an end. You are not inherently valuable – you are valuable to the extent that you help to achieve the goals of Israel’s government.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but given recent realities in the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the United States it requires saying: Natan Sharansky is wrong. Jewish students are not valuable to the extent that they serve him, any other human being, or any organization. Human beings, and the subset of human beings we call Jewish college students, are valuable because, well, they are. Because people have value.
We, the American Jewish community, have forgotten that truth. We have turned 400,000 Jewish college students into pawns in a game of chess. Vessels to be maneuvered this way and that. To be strategized about. Programmed for. Rarely spoken to or collaborated with. We have spoken about students as soldiers so much that we have forgotten they are also something else: people.
Additionally, by doing so much “combating” and “defending,” Jewish organizations are actually losing the very “fight” they want to win. As a result of consistent dehumanization, where students are not treated as mature adults capable of their own decision-making but as tools to be utilized for political ends, the very Jews they want to engage feel disrespected. Some channel those feelings to try and make their organizations better. Others just leave. And when they leave Jewish life, often permanently, no Jewish communal “battle” is won.
This group of alienated Jews is huge. I have no exact data, but I can say that anecdotally, among my own friends, there are dozens. This group contains individuals of virtually every Jewish denomination and a vast diversity of geographic locations. Not just radicals. Not just the hyper-intellectual. It includes Jews whose entire Jewish identity comes from going on one Birthright trip and others who work for Jewish organizations. I wish they were outliers, but they are very much a part of the Jewish mainstream. This set of my friends feels that Jewish communal support for them is entirely or mostly conditional on whether or not they decide to actively support Israel through advocacy and with money. They feel pretty sure that, no matter how much time, effort, or money they put into Jewish communal causes, the organizations they love will abandon them if they take a stance that strays from the party line.
This group is growing in number, and its members are growing more and more alienated from Jewish life. That is a real tragedy, and we need to address it in all of our communal institutions. One place we can start is on college campuses, since that is the site of so much of that alienation. Step one, as we work to fix this problem, must be an end to all this dehumanizing language.
We have to stop speaking about students as “soldiers” that we are “mobilizing” in the “fight” for “victory,” and start speaking to them as real people worth listening to. We have to recognize what it might feel like to assign a “battle” to 400,000 18-22 year-olds without consulting them. We have to think about, if things were reversed, how 45-50 year olds might feel if 18-22 year-olds exercised their power to set the 45-50 year-old agenda without consulting them about it. And how they would feel if the 18-22 year-olds actively stigmatized anyone who decided a different agenda might be better for the Jewish people or the world.
I hope to see Am Yisrael, the people Israel, thrive in the 21st century and beyond. But we’re just not there yet. We are allowing love for M’dinat Yisrael, the state of Israel, to trump all else. There was a time a few decades ago, where such an emphasis really did, for the most part, aid the growth of our people. But that time has come to a close.
Importantly, it is not “coming” to a close, it already has. Jewish college students are not “leaders of tomorrow” as so many like to say, but in fact they are leaders of today. These Jewish leaders are speaking loudly, with their mouths and with their feet. In order to reverse these disturbing trends, the way we speak about students must change.
No more “soldiers.” No more “battlefields.” We must identify dehumanizing claims such as Sharansky’s for what they are and eliminate them from our collective vocabulary. Until we do, Jewish students will continue to distance themselves from the very institutions seeking to serve them. I refuse to accept that result, and I hope you will stand against it as well.