Defending the Jewish Community on Campus

Anti-Semitism has plagued college campuses far too many times since the year began. Temple University’s incident became the opening salvo, where my friend and fellow brother Daniel Vessal got punched in the face by an SJP activist two months ago. Since then, swastikas vandalize AEPi fraternity houses, SJP activists call for intifada, Jewish students are told to “go back into the oven,” and a rogue student body president causes mayhem for her calls for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

The semester has barely reached the halfway mark, and Jewish students on campus have experienced some of the worst cases of anti-Semitism that we have seen to date. Anti-Zionist aggressions from the summer certainly carried over into the very places where all students should feel safe and secure. I could not imagine how a Jewish first-year student feels in places where the worst transgressions have occurred. However, I have the luxury of seeing the power of a strong Jewish community on campus.

Every mentor, RA, or upperclassman has the obligation to make freshmen and prospective students feel safe and secure. But the Jewish community needs more than that; it needs strong groups that celebrate and protect Jewish identity. Whether it comes from Zionist groups on campus or from Hillel and Chabad, Jewish students need empowerment from organizations that emphasize their upbringing. However, in the last seven months, I recognized the following fact: Whenever Alpha Epsilon Pi has a strong presence on campus, the Jewish community thrives. Since becoming a founding father of my colony, I have seen first-hand how much the Jewish fraternity altered the Claremont Colleges’ Jewish community.

A few weeks ago, one of my brothers had both his Israeli flag and his mezuzah stolen in a matter of three days. Though the first incident could be seen as politically-motivated, the second incident left nothing to the imagination. Our entire fraternity did not take this too kindly, however we knew that retaliation was not only stupid, but also counterproductive. We agreed to purchase thirty mezuzahs in solidarity. We also wanted to send the following message to the anti-Semites who committed this hate crime: If you had no problem taking down one mezuzah, then you should have no problem taking down thirty

Initially, our colony asked for a grant to purchase these mezuzahs. However, AEPi International had a different agenda. Thanks to the generosity of both AEPi and Chabad on Campus, both organizations purchased 35 mezuzahs. On top of that, our Chabad rabbi blessed every single one that was placed on our doorposts. In a matter of two weeks, one of the darkest events in my four years in Claremont resulted in one of the brightest moments of my time here. If that does not demonstrate the true strength of the Jewish community, then I do not know what can.

Thousands of college students do not have the luxury of having an AEPi chapter on campus. However, that does not change the fact that any Jewish college student can mobilize to stand up against SJP, the MSA, and anti-Israel professors that often bully the Jewish community. One of the biggest advantages of the Jewish community remains that our small numbers draw us closer together in times of turmoil and distress. For millennia, the Jewish people faced persecution, inquisition, pogroms, discrimination, etc., so our common history keeps us glued together. Regardless if you are Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sepharidic, Beta Yisrael, or any other Jewish tribe, we share the same religious texts and history. Creating a safe and powerful space for us to unite remains best way to make the Jewish community stronger.

Unfortunately, it is also true that some Jewish organizations have stepped away from that norm, namely Open Hillel, JVP, and J Street. These fringe groups stepped away from the mainstream Jewish community and appropriated the same or similar rhetoric as the very agents who have bullied us on campus. What makes the situation worse is that these groups cite “Jewish values” for their shoddy purposes. This puts the majority of Jewish students in a troubling scenario. Instead of facing the traditional anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist movement alone, it also must confront fellow Jewish students who utilize the same tactics as the former group of troublemakers.

How does a Jewish student handle Jewish anti-Zionism? We must highlight their hypocrisy the same way that the Jewish community has taken on groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. Labeling them as “not being Jewish” accomplishes nothing, rather asking probing questions as to why they believe demonizing Israel will bring peace. More importantly, you ask them why they think dividing the Jewish community accomplishes anything. The moment our enemies see divisions within our community, they exploit it and deem their allies “the good Jews” while seeing the rest of us as “the bad Jews.” This is no less anti-Semitic, and it remains imperative to question our fellow Jewish students as to why creating such divisions expedites “peace” rather than fanning the flames of bitter conflict.

As I begin my final year as a student leader, I recognize the challenges that my brothers and my fellow pro-Israel activists face. More importantly, I see that the Jewish community is in dire need of empowerment, strength, and affirmation of their freedom as self-determined Jews. If I have taken anything away from Zionism, it is the following: The Jewish people should be empowered to determine their own future, rather than hoping that the world will make it a better place for us. For too long, we were forced to hide our true identity in order to keep us alive. Assimilation saved us, but it did not make us free.

Zionism means freedom for the Jewish people, and to be a true Zionist is to fight for the Jewish community to thrive and feel safe in their own neighborhood. For college students, it is doubly important for Jewish students to empower our community to be proud Jews during these times of turmoil and bigotry. Once the Jewish community comes together on college campuses and forms a contingency of proud, self-determined Jews, then we will defeat the anti-Zionists and other fringe Jewish organizations that attempt to derail us and make us weak. But as we say once we finish the last line of the Torah: Chazak chazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened. We have no choice but to mobilize, and we must in order to prevent anti-Semitism from keeping us in fear again. Our enemies will be defeated, but we have to work together to make it a reality.

“If you will it, it is no dream.” – Theodore Herzl

About the Author
Elliott Hamilton is a JD/MPH candidate at Boston College Law School and Tufts University School of Medicine. He was credited as a researcher in the 2016 film "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus."
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