Over the past several years, a key and growing concern of our Jewish community has been: How do we prepare our teens to be proud Jews and supporters of Israel once they are in college?
The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement has generated alarming levels of anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitism on college campuses. Tactics have grown more hostile as well as more strident. Some methods used at numerous campuses, through coordinated national funding and training, include public displays accusing Israel of being an apartheid or Nazi-like state, demonstrations such as “die-ins” or fake eviction notices slipped under dorm room doors, and persistent disruption and attempts to shut down pro-Israel speakers. In contrast to sincere debate on the issues, BDS efforts are designed to delegitimize the Jewish state and intimidate American Jewish students.
It’s working. A recent survey by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University found that more than half of Jewish students reported being exposed to anti-Semitism and hostility toward Israel in the last year, and nearly 60 percent of the schools with the most Jewish students had incidents involving the targeting of Jewish students for harm, anti-Semitic expression, or BDS activity. Rutgers, Wisconsin, NYU, and other popular schools were named for having an especially high number of incidents. Nearly half of Jewish survey respondents had heard messages such as “Israelis behave like Nazis toward the Palestinians,” and about one-quarter were blamed for the actions of the Israeli government because they were Jewish.
If you think this is limited to college campuses, think again. Northern New Jersey Jewish teens face anti-Semitism in school, extracurricular activities, and summer programs. Teenagers involved in a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey effort to address such issues had many stories to tell. One high school sophomore stopped wearing a Star of David to school, hoping that the relentless taunts about Israelis being killers would cease. Another teen reported that on a summer program after his freshman year, other students threw bacon at him in the cafeteria and called him “Jew-boy.” Several local high schools have been defaced with swastikas and similar graffiti. According to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office, these types of incident are on the rise.
The impact on our children takes many forms. Students active in political and social causes may find themselves excluded from some groups, particularly progressive ones, because of their support for Israel. Many attempts to remove Jewish students from student council and other leadership positions have cited visits to Israel on a Birthright trip as a basis for disqualification. Even non-Jewish students with no particular views on the underlying issues have been attacked by BDS activists, sometimes with frightening results.
Not every student seeks leadership positions. But when Jewish students feel uncomfortable expressing their views on Israel, they are silenced before they begin a conversation. Time and again Jewish students, even those with significant Jewish identity and knowledge of Israel, feel helpless when a classmate, roommate or friend expresses anti-Israel views that all too often have become mainstream. Others feel uncomfortable because they do not know enough facts to counter common lies — such as the apartheid analogy — or defend their point of view. Rather than confronting someone they care about, many choose to change the subject. The resulting disengagement from the debate leaves a sense that discussing Israel invites unease.
Not all criticism of Israel is illegitimate. As with any complicated topic, reasonable minds can differ on any number of issues. This makes it all the more difficult to distinguish legitimate debate from delegitimization and propaganda. Nuanced discussions of complex issues can get lost in the clear good vs. evil narrative of Israel’s detractors.
As parents prepare to send their kids off to college, they need to do more than teach them to do laundry and manage their finances. Our children have to be informed about what they may face, practice how to answer, and know where to turn should a challenging situation arise. Moreover, they need to connect with peers who are experiencing the same situations, so they know they are not alone and can gain strength to answer rather than avoid tough questions. Finally, no matter how strong your teen’s identity may be, additional inspiration serves to inoculate them from the attacks they may encounter.
This year, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, working with a coalition of youth groups, pro-Israel, and campus organizations and a task force of teens from over 15 area high schools, is launching a pilot program on Sunday, March 5, called “iCAN: I Can Answer Now.” The iCAN conference will empower area high school students to wear their Judaism with pride. Jewish teens from all backgrounds will gather for common purpose. Renowned speakers, including Chloe Valdary, Shahar Azani, and Milan Chattergee, will educate and inspire, while students on campus now will share their experiences and lessons learned. In workshops, students will get a chance to practice answers. Parents can attend a special program with Rabbi Dan Smokler, Hillel International’s chief innovation officer. To cap the day, comedian Jon Rudnitsky, a Saturday Night Live alum and proud Zionist, will give a different take on how to “stand up.” Teens will leave informed, inspired, energized, proud, and ready to tackle whatever they may encounter.
The issues on campus are difficult and serious, but by coming together to face them, not only can we fight BDS and anti-Semitism, we can strengthen ourselves, our kids, and our community in the process.