Arkady Babaev

Back to School: Israel Advocacy on the North American Campus

As Jewish students across North America return to their campuses, they are set to embark on what will almost certainly be a challenging year. With the recent conflict only just behind us and still very fresh in our minds, September will surely mark the outset of the “post-war semester”.

The recent Israel-Gaza conflict was the centre of attention for nearly every media outlet on the planet. From CNN to Al Jazeera, political commentators, analysts, and thinkers have not shied away from communicating their opinions on the conflict, an approach that in many cases disregarded even the greyest of professional boundaries. Minute by minute, what at first seemed to be an understandable interest in an increasingly hostile region in the Middle East rapidly turned into an obsession with Israel’s actions in the Gaza strip. By mid-July, it seemed as if scrutinizing Israel to an absurdly disproportionate degree was on the agenda of nearly every major news network, while very rarely holding Hamas, a terrorist organization, accountable for the damage. As expected, such unbalanced criticism of Israel’s actions did not go unnoticed by the public- soon thereafter, everyone seemed to have something to say on the matter.

Universities and colleges have always served as the beacons of intellect, open debate, and liberal pursuit of knowledge. As a student who has now spent over six years at Canada’s largest and arguably most esteemed university, the University of Toronto, it was very clear from day one that non-conformist views are not only welcome but are also encouraged in this institution. Rebellion against those who are seemingly powerful and strong and solidarity with those are seemingly disadvantaged and weak with very little consideration for historical context built the foundation for a plethora of “anti-“ movements to choose from. Post-secondary institutions therefore became natural hotbeds for heavy anti-Israel propaganda even at the expense of accuracy and validity of information and at the cost of alienating and targeting a specific group of students.

Of course, anti-Israel propaganda is nothing new to post-secondary students. A quick walk through the hallways of a student centre at any major university in the United States or Canada will reveal countless bulletin posters and flyers vilifying Israel in one way or another. This time around, however, one can reasonably expect these sentiments to give rise to more aggressive, ruthless, and unbalanced criticism of Israel than ever before. This is not because supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign will have a stronger case to make, nor is it because the “Israeli Apartheid Week” propaganda will suddenly be any less misleading and removed from the truth. Rather, anti-Israel groups will have a far easier time exploiting the media frenzy which has gained record-high momentum over the summer to portray Israel as the ultimate aggressor in the region. An abundance of new gory war images to choose from, strong reactions and condemnation from many public figures (or self-righteous “open letters” in the case of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz), and a handful of academics who have taken the liberty to express their convictions regarding the conflict will all surely be used as tools to lure neutral bystanders over to the anti-Israel camp. Put simply, the job of those who are vehemently against Israel was just made much easier which, in turn, makes the task of advocating for Israel harder than in years past.

I said “Jewish students” and not “Israel advocates” in the beginning of this article for a reason which I will now explain. A quick glance at the public European backlash against Israel’s actions during the recent conflict reveals a new wave of vicious anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head. Attacks on synagogues in France and Germany became a regular occurrence throughout July and August, and public protests against Israel were filled with rabid anti-Semitic chants. Keeping aside what one’s opinion may be on the conflict, it was blatantly obvious that some of those who sided against Israel held all Jews accountable for the conflict. They truly believed that desecrating Jewish places of worship was a legitimate form of protest. In their minds, they are convinced that Israel is evil and, by extension, so are all the remaining Jews around the world. Sadly, although the former conviction is relatively new age, the latter one has been around for centuries, if not millennia. The recent conflict in Israel did not fuel anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, but rather it exposed and unveiled a problem that has never been fully eradicated.

Unfortunately, it would not be far-fetched to predict that such sentiments that have been seen in Europe will make their way to North American campuses. Perhaps less extreme and perhaps even not as forceful, anti-Israel propaganda will be used as a medium to broadcast anti-Semitic sentiments on campuses in United States and Canada in one way or another. Free speech will surely be exploited once again to generate hate speech and keeping in mind that universities have classically shown themselves eager to facilitate such “anti-” sentiments, as mentioned above, anti-Semitic rhetoric will almost certainly surface on campuses.

As a result, Jewish students who in their naivety believed that anti-Israel propaganda is none of their concern are in for a rude awakening. It will be a very grim reminder, to those who thought differently, that when Israel is being unfairly scrutinized in the international arena all Jewish communities feel the heat and hostility. This year, however, toxic anti-Israel propaganda will frustrate, anger, and hurt more Jewish students than ever before, especially when other side has never previously been fuelled with so much hatred towards Israel and Jews.

So where does this leave us? As a Jewish student in North America I believe that every Jew is obligated to stand strong behind the State of Israel. The lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are far too blurry to be excused. Student groups that are hostile towards Israel generate an atmosphere that will make many, if not all, Jewish students uncomfortable. Nevertheless, no matter how toxic and full of indiscriminate hatred and ignorance anti-Zionism is, it may still sound appealing to naive and misinformed bystanders which could potentially only increase the hostility. For this reason, a key part of effective advocacy on campus involves facilitating and maintaining an open and intellectual dialogue with all students and student groups. Engaging as many students in our classes, students centres, or even over a cup of coffee and providing them with honest and accurate information regarding the conflict could go a long way in preventing these students from falling prey to the propaganda of even the most ruthless of BDSers.

History has thought us that Jews simply cannot afford to stay silent in the face of anti-Zionism and hostility. Apathy on the part of Jewish students who to this day thought that anti-Zionism was a strictly an “Israeli issue” instead of a global “Jewish issue” must be replaced with action and resilience. Because when BDS motions pass on campuses and Jewish students could not care less to do anything about it and keep student unions in check, anti-Zionism becomes normalized in the minds of students. And once anti-Zionism becomes completely normalized it prepares a dangerous breeding ground for anti-Semitism to become normalized too.

We have seen this story far too many times before. We are starting to see this story once again. Let’s act and stand strong with Israel this year so in 15-20 years we will not have to look back at this time and say with sorrow “we should have done something about it then because now it’s too late.”

About the Author
Arkady Babaev is an Israeli-Canadian Israel advocate and activist as well as a graduate student (Hon B.Sc) at the University of Toronto (UofT), currently working towards completing his Master of Science degree at UofT.
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