College can be a scary place for Zionists. I know this because until recently I was a student — and a Zionist — at UC Berkeley. My friends and I often encountered acts of anti-Semitism like swastikas scrawled in our dorms and on bus stops, having people rip signs from our hands and spit at us, being called names like “baby killers” and “terrorist supporters,” and in some cases even experiencing physical assault. That is not to say that all campuses are cesspools of anti-Israel activity, or that other Jewish students on the same campus didn’t experience anti-Israel sentiment. Some of my friends at Berkeley stayed out of Israel politics and said they never felt threatened or harassed. But one thing is definite: anti-Israel sentiment on university campuses like UC Berkeley and Columbia comes in waves and affects many students who identify as Israel activists.
It’s been shown time and again that seemingly tolerant, quiet universities can become rampantly anti-Israel in a matter of months. In the past two years, Jewish students from UC San Diego, one of the most apolitical UC campuses historically, have commented that they now feel unsafe on campus because of the surprising rise in anti-Israel activity. So why not prepare all incoming university students with the necessary education to identify, confront and reject anti-Israel propaganda on campus?
Is the outcome of being educated about this reality in high school really so devastating that it’s better to avoid it?
Seffi Kogen, the author of a recent Times of Israel blog post, “The Disappearing Legion,” seems to think so, stating that high school students “who were taught facts and figures…defensive mantras…remain unengaged.” Ironically, he is a good example of someone who came to campus educated about Israel and was, by all appearances, a success story. Though he may not have used his knowledge extensively, the preparation clearly motivated him to become so involved in Israel activity that he wrote an entire article decrying the apathy of other Jewish students toward Israel.
Screening films like “Crossing The Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus” (full disclosure: It was created by my organization JerusalemOnlineU.com) for high school students is not by itself an end goal. But it is an effective means to motivate students to become more educated about important issues, so that if and when they do face opposition, they can differentiate between truth and lies. Kogen himself described not just watching films, but arming himself with the knowledge to withstand whatever biased claims might come his way. In an environment like a college campus, where so much distorted information can easily be promulgated, and where students are so easily influenced, knowing the facts is of utmost importance.
I do agree with Kogen that the greatest problem is apathy. However, the apathetic students to whom I am referring are not those who received a strong Israel education in high school, as the author implied. The real apathetic students are rather those who know little to nothing about Israel and don’t care to learn more. We should be connecting them to Israel in ways that they can relate to, be it Israeli movie nights, business internship opportunities in Israel, or getting on board with and fighting for “the cause.” We should not be prescribing a universal regimen of Israeli cultural activities.
I believe there is a more effective way — prevention. If we can get students to care about Israel before they reach college, we can succeed in the war against apathy on campus.
I agree with Kogen on another point: Jewish youth should want to discuss and think about Israel, and that comes with creating a love of and curiosity about everything Israel has to offer. This is why my organization also created another documentary called “Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference.” This film encourages students to think critically about unique Israeli characteristics and how they can be implemented in their own lives. Motivated by my own experiences with Jewish students on campus, after graduating I decided to dedicate my life to educating high school students about Israel and instilling in them love of and pride in the Jewish State.
Kogen insists that love for and curiosity about Israel are essential. But they are not strong enough to withstand opposition if they are not complemented by a thorough understanding of history and current issues. We should not stop educating our youth about Israel because we think they might not use that knowledge. Rather, we should motivate and inspire them to care about Israel on campus and beyond, regardless of how they utilize their inspiration.