Now that students have returned to hundreds of campuses across North America, it’s a good time to pause and take stock of Jewish life on campus and set our goals for the coming year.
If you talk to anyone who follows this subject, you will likely hear one of two assessments. You might hear that Jewish life on campus is robust and dynamic, with universities eagerly recruiting and welcoming Jewish students. Or you might hear that anti-Israel activity has too often crossed the line into anti-Semitism, intimidating Jewish students and making them feel they must hide their Jewish identities.
As President of Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, I can tell you that both are true, sometimes even on the same campus. While there are many campuses where Jewish life is thriving unabated, some are also challenged by anti-Israel protests and anti-Semitic incidents. Clearly, the strength of Jewish life on campus should be celebrated and supported, but that does not mean we can overlook anti-Semitism. We have to devote simultaneous effort to building Jewish life and protecting it.
Take the example of my alma mater, Northwestern University. They have a thriving community at NU Hillel, sending 53 students to Morocco, Poland and Jamaica on alternative spring break service trips last year. Jewish students formed a creative writing workshop for Jewish writers. NU Hillel launched Jewish Sustained Dialogue — small-group student-led conversations about Jewish identity. And they invited a local human rights lawyer to lead a sold-out course about Jews, privilege and social justice.
At the same time, supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement ran an aggressive anti-Israel campaign on campus. They managed to secure a vote of Northwestern’s Associated Student Government in favor of calling on the university to divest its holdings from six companies because they do business in Israel.
But Jewish students were not intimidated. I am proud to say they were united by one of their core values as Jews — support for our Jewish homeland. In the same academic quarter as the divestment vote, Northwestern students rushed to reaffirm their Jewish identities on and off campus.
The situation at Northwestern — like the situation on campuses across the country — proves that Jewish students, with the support of Hillel and others, are able to advocate for themselves and for Israel. But just because Jewish students have been able to contend with the BDS movement doesn’t mean that they should have to.
There is a real problem of anti-Semitism on campus. The BDS movement crosses the line of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and aims to destroy Israel. Banners equating Israel with Apartheid South Africa appear with increasing frequency on campuses. This is not a political statement. It is an incitement that calls any student a racist for believing the Jewish people have the right of self-determination. It falsely labels the clear majority of Jewish students and many of other faiths as morally compromised and compares them to the oppressors of minorities throughout history. Is this really what colleges and universities wish to see on their grounds?
BDS rejects dialogue and real learning. This is the opposite of what universities are seeking to teach and model on campus. And university administrators should be actively discouraging this type of behavior.
The leaders of higher education have a responsibility to uphold the values of academia. University presidents and administrators are entrusted with safeguarding their students from harassment based on their faith, in the same way they protect students from being targeted based on gender, sexual orientation or race.
This means teaching students to communicate about controversial issues with respect. Educators should encourage students to seek solutions and listen to opposing viewpoints instead of taking actions that further divide the campus community. BDS campaigns do not meet these criteria and have no place on college campuses.
It is our responsibility to convey our concern about this issue to university administrators. We need to make the case that BDS is not conducive to a campus environment that celebrates learning, discussion and debate.
Let’s consider the future of Jewish life on campus in its entirety. Today, Jewish campus life is rich with programming and connection. It is also complicated by those who seek to harm Jewish life and Israel.
Jewish students are more than capable of overcoming the current challenges. But that does not release the rest of us from our obligation to oppose attacks on Jewish life and preserve the integrity of college campuses.