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Before you head to campus, read this

When it comes to Israel, if you don't want to be an activist and you don't want to say nothing, you can engage with nuance and sophistication. Here's how
(Ryan Jacobson, on Unsplash)
(Ryan Jacobson, on Unsplash)

If you are a Jewish student heading to college, and if Israel is a place that matters to you, are you prepared for what you may encounter on campus? Whether you identify as a Zionist or whether you use other words to express your attachment, how will you bring these parts of your identity to the complex landscape you are about to enter?

It’s no secret that many campuses have become ground-zero for anti-Israel activism, from “Israel Apartheid Week” theatrics to boycott (BDS) initiatives. Jewish students who want to participate in social justice causes sometimes discover that Zionists are not welcome.

While the intolerance of these movements cannot go unchallenged, and while there are campus groups you can join to fight back, not every student wants to be an activist on behalf of Israel.  Whether or how to engage in the Israel issue is not a binary choice — either throw yourself into the deep end of Israel activism or sit it out entirely.

There’s a middle way — to be knowledgeable enough, open to talking with others in your circle, willing to grapple with complexity, and confidently owning your identity as you define it. Every person can make a difference within their own sphere.

A July 2019 PEW study pointed out most non-Jewish Americans do not know that much about Judaism, and yet Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group. Keep that in mind as you meet students who may have never met a Jew before and for whom Israel is simply a faraway country. Own your identity and teach others what it means to you. In return, listen with respect when your peers teach you who they are.

When it comes to Israel, discuss with nuance and sophistication, not bombast.

How do you prepare yourself to do this? Whether you’re a new or returning college student, here are some ideas that can help:

  1. As a Jew, you are part of a global people whose history, faith, text, and language originate in the land of Israel. Can you explain why Israel matters to you? Maybe your connection is rooted in memories of your own visits. Maybe you have friends and family there. Maybe you know enough Jewish history to feel that visceral attachment to our people’s homeland. What is your truth when it comes to your bond with Israel? That’s your “Israel story,” and when you tell it to another person, with respect and sincerity, the listener cannot easily dismiss your words.
  2. Read Yossi Klein HaLevi’s short, essential book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” Get the newest edition that includes fifty pages of responses written by Palestinians. You can read the whole book in a few hours. This is your textbook on how to both “talk” and “listen,” how to be a Zionist through and through, but one who is willing to hear other, painful, narratives. Listen to this Minnesota Public Radio interview with Klein HaLevi and one of his Palestinian correspondents, Yousef Bashir. Both the book and the interview tackle tough issues that surround Israel’s founding, the outcome of the Six Day War, and why peace remains elusive. You will have to grapple with both Israeli and Palestinian narratives, and therefore, you will have to grapple with complexity. Isn’t that what college is for?
  3. Can you tell the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism? Israeli policies are fair game for criticism — Israelis themselves are vociferous critics of their leaders and government. But when a double standard is applied to Israel, when Israel is demonized, or delegitimized, the US State Department has defined that as anti-Semitism. Wanting to see an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is not anti-Semitic. Likening Israelis to Nazis is, without a doubt, anti-Semitic.
  4. Acquaint yourself with the BDS movement and its aims. I believe that many students join on with noble intentions, seeking justice for the Palestinians. They are unaware that the movement seeks the elimination of Israel, and its replacement with a single, Palestinian Arab state through the absorption of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants. These students don’t realize that BDS does not help Palestinians, and in fact, hurts them. BDS singles out just one party for demonization and punishment in a two-party conflict. What’s fair about that? Know enough about BDS to help well-meaning peers reject this one-sided blame game.
  5. Bring with you a skill set for having conversations on difficult topics (if you are looking to sharpen your skills in this area, read this book from the Harvard Negotiation Project). Listen to the other person without interrupting. Listening isn’t about agreement, rather, it’s an opportunity to consider another point of view. Ask clarifying questions. Resist the urge to jump in and rebut. Then, when the other person has said their piece (and probably more), ask, “Would you like to know how this issue looks to me?” If either you or your conversational partner says, “Hmmm. I didn’t know that. I’ll have to think about it,” consider it a win for both of you.
  6. Israel is more than a story of conflict and more than the sum total of its challenges. It’s a country, not a cause. Know something about its diverse culture, its vibrant arts scene, its remarkable humanitarian aid, and its astonishing innovation– not to change the subject but to broaden the subject.
  7. Understand that there is more to every student than where they stand on this issue. Disagreements on Israel shouldn’t be the only thing keeping individuals or student groups from interacting. Avoidance because of Israel politics is not healthy.
  8. The campus drama surrounding this issue has little, if any, effect on the Israelis and Palestinians who actually live in the region, but it can have a profound effect on the students who experience the drama swirling around them. So, my last bit of advice is this: Know where to turn on campus when you need help, support, or resources.

The Israel issue on campus is a challenge, but also an opportunity. If you approach it with confidence in your identity, if you’re willing to wrestle with complicated issues, if you engage thoughtfully with people who may see things differently –you’ll grow in ways that will serve you the rest of your life.

 Thank you to my colleagues Holly Brod Farber, Ethan Roberts, Sami Rahamim, and Benjie Kaplan for their wise insights as I wrote this article.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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