Recent events at The University of Sydney have highlighted an already all too familiar challenge which Jewish and pro-Israel students are facing on university campuses worldwide.
On March 11, 2015 retired British Army Colonel Richard Kemp was invited to the University of Sydney to speak on ethical dilemmas of Middle East conflict. Former Commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Kemp has been an outspoken supporter of Israeli military operations in Gaza in recent years, even testifying before the United Nations Human Rights Council in defense of the IDF. While the focus of his lecture at University of Sydney was not centered on the conflict in Israel, both students and community members anticipated and feared a dramatic response from anti-Israel activists.
As expected, protesters marched into the lecture hall with megaphones and slogans, interrupting the speech until being forcibly removed by campus security. Images and videos captured on cell phones by students, show the protesters’ violent resistance to security, unwillingness to cease their disruption of the event, and the sheer violence and anger on display by these purported activists. Additionally, the involvement of a notorious anti-Israel, pro-BDS faculty member in the ensuing altercation highlighted an alarming challenge that Jewish students must also confront in their academic lives.
The situation now is a far cry from what I faced as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2004-2008. Yes, as pro-Israel activists we were often confronted with protests, op-eds, and posters decrying Israeli actions against the Palestinians. There was, however, an unseen line in the sand that neither side would cross. You do your thing, and we do ours. At times, we were even able to create dialogues and productive discussions to bridge the gap between the two groups. In those days, we were just beginning to hear the faint stirrings of the now ever present BDS movement. Not so today. These groups have no interest in dialogue. Instead, they prefer dramatic demonstrations of aggression in their attempts to delegitimize Israel.
Upon arriving in Melbourne to begin my term as a young Jewish Agency emissary to the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), I heard shocking stories of regular harassment of Jewish students. From taunting and cursing Jewish students on their way to class, to the ripping of signs and Israeli flags from AUJS stalls and events, anti-Israel activists even went so far as to publicly single out Jewish students as supporters of genocide. I have heard echoes of similar incidents at campuses across North America, Europe, and South Africa.
AUJS students have tried time and again to reach out to various organizations for dialogue, and have consistently been rebuffed. The reason always cited is the fact that one of our organization’s core pillars is Zionism. The sad reality is that at the moment, they simply will not talk to us. Where are we supposed to go from here?
Two very different schools of thought have emerged in recent years to answer this challenge. Currently, consensus amongst most Jewish student groups on campus is to build calculated and strategic responses to the growing and alarming number of incidents. These groups refuse to fight fire with fire, and instead prefer to pursue an educational and intellectual method of advocacy on campus. The current modus operandi of advocacy groups is to promote the positive achievements and contributions that have come out of Israel. We have all surely heard, “Did you know that Israel invented the USB drive? Did you know that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where members of the LGBTQ community can live freely?” While all of this is true, it does not speak to the issues and tensions that underlie the whole discourse about Israel on campus.
In a recent article in the Jewish Journal, weekly columnist David Suissa bemoans what he considers the shortcomings of the status quo, and the failure of Jewish student groups to grasp what is necessary in order to win the fight on campus. Suissa lays forth a number of options, including the idea that “By turning the image of Israel upside down: Not only is Israel not worthy of boycott, it’s actually the #1 solution to problems [in] the Middle East.”
Earlier in the article, he references a recent campaign by David Horowitz’s Freedom Center to plaster graphic posters across the UCLA campus calling Students in Justice for Palestine #JewHaters. Horowitz and others represent what I see as a growing group within the Jewish community frustrated with what they believe to be a lack of any effort to “fight back” from Jewish student and pro-Israel advocacy groups. They feel that playing by the rules has gotten us nowhere, and it is now time to adopt new, more dramatic methods to get our message across.
Where does that leave us? The actions of AUJS students during the incident at University of Sydney displayed exemplary calm and maturity in the face of hateful incitement. Rather than scream back, these students strove to defuse the situation, even going so far as to physically restrain audience members on both sides of the issue. In recent years, AUJS has also taken proactive approaches to respond to the rising tide of anti-Israel activity on campus. Their efforts range from building relationships with key members of student government and administration, to wearing hard hats and holding signs that warn “hate speech ahead” in response to Students for Justice in Palestine or the Socialist Alternative. While this might not satisfy the urgent need to respond, in the long run it is laying the groundwork for more successful initiatives to promote and defend Israel in the academic world.
In my work with AUJS students, I am constantly trying to grapple with the dilemma of which course of action to take in response to such difficult issues. I want students to feel empowered, while at the same time ensuring that their efforts will pay off in the long run. While I understand the motive behind campaigns such as those of the Freedom Center, I am certain that this is not the right way to advocate for Israel on both a moral and a strategic level. No, we will never let ourselves be intimidated by pro-BDS, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic activities, but we must not forget what it is that we are fighting for. As pro-Israel activists we must ensure that our behavior aligns with the same values of respect, freedom, and morality, which we hold so dear. This struggle has clearly gone beyond that of Israel and Palestine. It is about the rights of any student to freely express who they are and what they stand for without fear. This is something I think we can all agree is worth fighting for.