Gabriella Davoudpour: Tell us a little bit about yourself- where are you from, what are you studying?
Phillip Yurchenko: I’m originally from the Bay Area, California, and my family is originally from Belarus. I’m a junior at Wake Forest University, and my major is Business and Enterprise Management (BEM). I’m the president of SSI, and I’m also Israel Chair for Hillel this year.
Gabe Benzecry: I’m originally from Brazil, and my family is from Morocco. This is my second year at Wake Forest as an economics major. I was the president of Hillel last semester, and I’m the co-founder of SSI.
GD: What led you to bring SSI to Wake Forest?
GB: We were both involved in Hillel’s board in freshman year. Hillel had a huge resistance in regards to promoting Israeli culture and events. They weren’t very open in talking about Israel, which caused a lot of clashes with the board. We decided after everything that we needed to create an SSI for our campus, which we did in Fall of 2017. We started promoting cultural events, food related events, had Tu-Bishvat events, and were able to bring IDF soldiers come and talk about their experience in the army.
GD: What motivated you to get involved with SSI and advocacy for Israel?
PY: There wasn’t any anti-Israel movements when we came to campus; no one was talking about Israel. Even in Hillel, when Israel was brought up in a non-political way, we were told not to talk about it because it was too controversial. Israel is a very big part of my Jewish identity, and I didn’t feel like it was right that we couldn’t talk about it. That’s why we started SSI, to create a forum where we could talk about Israel and have those conversations.
GD: Tell us about the resolutions that you recently passed.
PY: Yeah, we passed one a while ago but it was really watered down. This past December, we passed another student government resolution that talked about anti-semitism, including the 3D’s (Natan Sharansky’s 3Ds distinguishes legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-semitism. Composed of demonization of Israel, double standards in regards to Israel, and delegitimization of Israel). We got a lot of push back from the community at Wake Forest; there were a few loud voices. The way that I see it, anti-semites already exist on campus, but are dormant. There are professors that openly support BDS, but no one talks about it. There were instances where people were anti-Israel, but nothing was done about it. Now that they saw that we were actively supporting the Jewish people and their right to self-determination, their true colors came out.
GD: Can you explain what’s been happening in the past week at Wake Forest?
PY: There was a Palestine Solidarity Week on campus, and as soon as we heard about it, we (SSI) reached out to the organizers of the event and said that we are a cultural club that would love to collaborate and help raise awareness about the Palestinian cause. Through so many emails, they said that they didn’t want us to be a part of it, and that they already had a Jew on the panel, so our concerns should be satisfied. When we asked them who was on the panel, which was a panel on anti-semitism, we were ignored. It became less about Israel and more about genuine anti-semitism. The Jewish community was very blatantly excluded from a conversation about anti-semitism. When we raised our concerns to the organizers about the week long events, they assured us that it was only a cultural event that wouldn’t be talking about the conflict. However, when it came around, there were posters all over campus saying that its an Israeli policy to murder children, and that Israel is an apartheid-ethnic cleansing state. They lied to us, and completely excluded us from the conversation.
GD: What has SSI done in response to their actions?
PY: We have gone to all of their events, and when they had their ‘wall’ outside, we tabled next to it with a sign saying, “Jews are indigenous to Israel, change my mind”. They told us that we had to leave because they had the space reserved; we moved but we didn’t leave. They had a movie screening of “Five Broken Cameras”, which is a very biased and anti-Israel film. We made half-page leaflets that we handed out to people as they were walking to the film, which gave them additional information. At the panel that we were excluded from, we got the Jewish community together, and told them that we needed to show our voices in events that we are being silenced from. I think we had 50+ people present that were wearing SSI or white T-shirts, and probably had more people present than they did. They were saying the most disgusting things, so we taped our mouths to show that we are being silenced. During the Q+A when we asked questions, they tried twisting our words, and wouldn’t really answer our questions. We were treated horribly, and afterwards, someone even asked me if I was a white supremacist.
GD: Aside from this week, how would you say the overall climate is at your university?
PY: I would say that it’s just like every other university that’s apathetic to everything. That being said, because there wasn’t any anti-Israel movement on campus, when we were tabling and did events for Tu-Bishvat, or Save a Child’s Hearts, people were really interested about what we had to say. I would say the hostility is a minority, but we are worried about the university not condemning anti-semitism when it happens.
GD: What do you think your biggest accomplishment has been so far as a club?
GB: I think the biggest win here has been how together and strong our Jewish community is. When we started SSI, one of the biggest complaints that we got was that we are creating controversy and dividing the community. We were very adamant about creating a platform for the Jewish community to stand for what is right, and that is exactly what we have done.
GD: How would you like to see your campus change and grow?
PY: We would like to see the campus recognize anti-semitism and acknowledge it. People will say that what they are doing is wrong, but it wasn’t anti semitism. The fact is that it was. They had an entire week dedicated to Palestinian rights, and it was obsessed with Israel. It didn’t talk about how Hamas mistreats Palestinians. It didn’t talk about how Egypt mistreats Palestinians. It didn’t talk about how Jordanians mistreat Palestinians. It just talked about Israel, and that is a clear double standard, so we are hoping that the university will be able to recognize anti-semitism. Aside from that, I think that the general public sees that something messed up happened, and most of them are on our side. There is a minority that is anti-semitic and anti-Israel, but I think that most people see that we are trying to have a conversation with them, and are being shut down.
GD: What is your next goal as a club?
PY: I think we’re going to keep reaching out to those who have concerns. We hope to be able to continue the conversation in a productive manner. A lot of people woke up in the past week, and were able to see that the issue is relevant.
GD: If you could give one piece of advice to the rest of the SSI members across the country, what would that be?
GB: I would say to stick to your values and stand up for what is right.
PY: Absolutely; don’t be afraid, and stand up for what you believe in. Sometimes you might feel like you’re alone, but you’re not alone, and you’re definitely doing the right thing.
*this interview has been condensed.