Jeff Rubin
A writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.

An academic year like no other

The academic year is coming to a close and with it, blessedly, will be the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic violence that has roiled college campuses but the dire repercussions of this tumultuous year will be felt for months and years to come.

The 2023-2024 school year was unlike any other in the decades I have followed the campus scene.

As the international communications director for Hillel from 1998-2011, I responded to antisemitic and anti-Zionist incidents great and small, from a slur by an antisemitic roommate to the boycott of Israeli hummus in dining halls, from divestment votes in student senates to the Hamas bombing of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem cafeteria in 2002. As bad as things were, never before did the president of the United States feel compelled to call for calm.

Columbia University and UCLA, which have lately seized global attention, have always been hotbeds of anti-Israel activity for the simple reason that they are located in major media centers. Anti-Israel activists recognized that if they could ignite a spark at these schools, the fire would undoubtedly spread. And they did.

Antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents occurred across North America for decades out of the public spotlight but well known to those of us who were on the frontlines. The scenario played out in similar ways: an anti-Israel or progressive group would sponsor an event to which a pro-Israel or conservative group would respond; a conservative group would mount a provocative pro-Israel event and the other side would take offense.

In one particularly violent 2009 incident, Jewish students at York University in Toronto were forced to take refuge in the Hillel office as anti-Israel protesters banged on the glass doors, chanting, “Die, bitch, go back to Israel,” and “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus,” as reported by The Jerusalem Post. The confrontation took place as tensions rose one month before international “Israel Apartheid Week.”

Then, as now, off-campus groups and activists would stoke the flames and use the incident for their own purposes. The New York Police Department reported that 32 of the 112 people recently arrested at Columbia University and 102 of the 170 arrested at the City College of New York were from off campus.

Assuming that anti-Israel groups were truly passionate about a peaceful, stable, and humane world, one would have expected the same level of energy invested to combat the other evils perpetrated over the last two decades: China’s repression of the Moslem Uighurs, the state-sponsored suppression of the Arab Spring, or the invasion of Ukraine, for example. There were no encampments, takeovers, or boycott votes in response to any of those outrages. The campuses were even silent when Syrian President Basher al-Assad gassed his own people during the country’s bloody civil war. At the time of Assad’s crackdown in 2013, I asked a young Syrian-American woman why the campus community was indifferent to the plight of her people and she told me that the various Arab groups on campus were too divided to act.

The Middle East conflict has always been an unwelcome guest on campus. Administrators and the majority of students resent the distraction from the core work of education–not to mention all the other diversions of college life–brought about by a small group of activists. In a new survey, students ranked the Mideast conflict as the least important of nine issues offered and only a small minority (8%) participated in either side of the protests. One can only imagine the frustration of students and parents prevented from attending a commencement ceremony–after a four-year slog that began during the pandemic–if other universities follow the University of Southern California and suspend their main event. Contributing to that resentment is the fact that unlike the protests of the 1960s–which focused on the Vietnam War, a burning issue for every family with a draft-age young man–today’s demonstrators imported a foreign problem irrelevant to most in the United States.

While non-Jewish students view the current campus scene with dismay, Jewish students look on with fear: Their four-year, coming-of-age odyssey has been marred by a hatred few have ever experienced. Consequently, Hillels have become havens in which Jewish students find comfort and celebrate their Jewish identity, rather than hiding it. Around the United States, as campuses boiled, Hillel activities teemed with participants. Donors have been eager to support activities that promote Israel and fight antisemitism, but less inclined to fund other programs.

The current unrest will undoubtedly contribute to lower matriculation rates and less financial support for years to come. Forbes magazine recently cited Ivy League university officials’ responses to on-campus protests against the war in Gaza as one factor in its list of “alternative Ivies,”  “the ten public universities and ten ascendant private ones turning out the smart, driven graduates craved by employers of all types.”

Students currently creating encampments–and occupying buildings–are wrong to assume they will convince the leaders of Israel and Hamas to set aside their political and strategic interests to make peace. In the 1960s, students believed they could end the war and elect a pro-peace candidate in the 1968 presidential election. Responding, in part, to the youth-led political and cultural chaos of the period, the US electorate took a conservative turn and elected Richard Nixon. With a presidential election looming in just a few months, today’s protesters should take notice.

About the Author
Jeff Rubin is a writer in the Baltimore-Washington area.
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