Ilan Sinelnikov
Ilan Sinelnikov

Open letter to Jewish students on campus 

To be a student on campus is an amazing experience, you enjoy your years in college, build a network, make lifelong friendships, and all while growing as a person. On the other hand, being a proud outwardly Jewish student on campus is often an entirely different and difficult story. You may be constantly attacked for your Judaism from all sides. You inevitably are attacked for your identity, and time after time, we have seen how the campus administration, student governments, and other student bodies turn their backs on you when you try to speak up and fight against Antisemitism. 

9 years ago, I was a freshman student at the University of Minnesota. I had moved to America from Israel, and I saw injustice. I saw how different clubs on campus attacked my homeland, Israel. They never argued over a policy or debated an issue within the Israeli government. I do not think any of them would have been able to name a single Israeli politician, even Bibi. This was never an issue based over politics. They only argued over my basic right to exist as a Jew in my place of birth. They attacked my identity for being Israeli, compared me to the KKK and compared my country to Nazi Germany, the same Nazis that murdered dozens of my family members in the Babi Yar massacre during the Holocaust. They held antisemitic posters, spreading modern-day blood libel. One such poster, of the first ones I saw, was a picture of American dollars being funneled through a Star of David into a bowl of bloodied children, saying that this is what Israel does. It was this blatant antisemitism that was being hidden behind the label of anti-Israel or anti-Zionism that we started Students Supporting Israel, registering the first SSI club on campus on March of 2012. Our goal was, and still is, to fight the hate towards and the lies about Israel and the Jewish people. 

Today, 9 years later, as we continue operating on college campuses across the world, I continue to realize that the issue was never about Israel and it will never be just about Israel. It was always about my Jewish identity. It was always about my inherent Jewish connection to the land of Israel, the place that gave a refugee to my family. The place that is a home to 50% of the world’s Jewish people. Many of them, Jews who were attacked, kicked out and massacred in their home countries. I would never face a single problem on campus, if I would be a quiet Jew. Everyone loves quiet Jews, everyone loves Jews who do not stand up for themselves. I would never face a single problem if I was a Jew that ignored the Jewish nation and the challenges the Jewish people face in the world today. But the moment I started talking about the antisemitism that impacts me as a Jew without even mentioning Israel, I was accused of dual loyalty, blamed for Israeli actions, asked to apologize for my identity. To be accepted by the wider community I was expected to prove to everyone that I can be that quiet Jew. This experience was not unique to me. What I described is felt daily by Jewish students on campuses worldwide. The more I speak to students the more I see it, no matter what country or campus. It is always the same hate, and the same lies. 

At UCLA, a Jewish student was questioned about her student government position appointment because she went to Israel. In Canada, Jewish student senators were voted down because they went to Israel. This would never be excused if these actions were targeting another group of students. If a Chinese student was refused a place in student government because they had visited China this would be rightfully called out as racist, and it is antisemitic to do this to Jewish students. These forces on campus want to rip a part of our identity away from us. The identity that is part of our people’s dreams and prayers for thousands of years. We never came to a land that is not ours, we returned home to the land that we always belonged to. It took the murder of six million Jews, to convince only parts of the world on the importance of a safe Jewish home. If Jews had had a home 75 years ago, six million more Jewish people would be here today, along with their children and their children’s children.

From August of 2020, Students Supporting Israel set ourselves a goal to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This is our identity, this is who we are, we can’t let the injustices continue. One way we are doing this is pushing for the adoption of the working definition of antisemitism developed by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) organization. While nearly 20 student bodies across the country supported their Jewish students and adopted the working definition of Antisemitism, in the past months I have seen many cases where the Jewish communities stayed alone, with no friends or allies. 

At the University of Iowa this week, the student government did not vote for a permanent Jewish minority representative position, despite the fact that other minorities have such a permanent position reserved to them. The question was posed, “Could you be in such a position without being biased?” I have never seen a non-Jewish student have a similar question asked of them, but I was asked that question myself in 2014 when submitting my application for a student position. Many other Jewish students were asked that question in the past years, and in 2021, things have not changed. Only Jewish students face these double standards, only Jews are expected to refute their identity to be accepted.

At UC Riverside a majority of non-Jewish students tabled the resolution to adopt IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism. They blamed the Jewish student who proposed the resolution for politicizing antisemitism. A Jewish student, born in Mexico, was merely asking to be able to define antisemitism on our terms. He was met with a whole group of non-Jews attacking him, claiming to be against antisemitism, as long as it is on their terms, not ours. The student government decided that Jews can not be allowed to write the definition of antisemitism, as they are incapable of being “unbiased.” They will fight for that Jewish student as long as he is a “good Jew,” as long as he does not cause much trouble, is shy of speaking up, and does not stir the pot. They will stand for Jews, only on their terms, and only if Jews never stand for themselves.

At the University of Minnesota this week, the entire Jewish community is fighting for the adoption of the definition of antisemitism, and the push back that they receive is unlike anything we have seen before. The vitriol students are facing now has been taken to another level. Epithets against Israel have been written across public spaces. Jewish students are held responsible for the actions of the State of Israel, not for actual geopolitical actions, but for the crime of existing as a Jewish state. College Democrats at the University of Minnesota published a statement against the IHRA definition of antisemitism with a complete disconnect from their very own political party, ignoring that a majority of Jewish students on campus consider themselves Democrats and are hoping for the definition to be adopted. Members of SJP collected 200 signatures, 90% of them which are not Jews, to tell the coalition of the entire Jewish community that their fight is unjust. Jewish students need to prove to others why the fight against antisemitism is needed, and they are being asked — why should Jews define antisemitism? 

There is an unlimited amount of other examples just like those I’ve detailed above. No other minority community in the country would ever be questioned about racism towards them. Yet, Jewish students and the Jewish people as a whole are always the only ones that need to prove to everyone, time after time, that we are being attacked. Sometimes it makes me wonder when would students support the Jewish community? The answer, it has yet to be seen. Perhaps only after Jews are in mortal danger. 

In the past 9 years, I have been working with Jewish students all over the world. No matter what the end result is, please always remember the following:

  1. Be a proud Jew. Do not let anyone tell you anything else. Do not let anyone silence you. 
  2. Be proud of your family and home in Israel, even if you have never stepped foot there, Israel is your home and when a dark day comes, it will always welcome you there. Israel will always be there to protect and save you. 
  3. Remember that the Jewish people suffered for 2000 years, we were exiled, murdered, and many things even worse. Our generation’s fight is just another type of fight, but our generation is the luckiest one in the history of our people. The fight is always easy when you are proud and strong, then when you depend on the mercy of others. 
  4. Do not let politics divide our community from within. You can be a liberal Jew, you can be a Conservative Jew. You can be reform, you can be orthodox. We are a family and Zionism is part of our identity. We can hide it, but at the end it will hunt us. Be proud, know your story, know the story of our people and defend our people when we are being attacked. 
  5. Hate can come from any direction. They say Jews will not replace us. When we are in Israel they scream Jews go back to Poland. The radical right and the radical left are more alike than we like to think, especially when it comes to antisemitism. 
  6. Be brave and be willing to stand up on your own. Even when it’s hard, standing up alone is still better than not standing up to bigotry at all. Standing up is the only way for us to keep on moving. 
  7. Speak up, if you will not speak up for us and our community no one will do it for us. When people can not vote to protect us against Antisemitism on paper, they will never protect us in real life. 
  8. Do not let minority vocal voices from within our community take control of our conversation. There will always be Jews who speak up against their own family. Call them out, do not let people who are tokenized represent all of us. 
  9. Fight anti-Zionism and antisemitism together, if you only pick one side, you will be attacked from the other. People who hate Jews, are the same people who hate the State of the Jews. 
  10. Never give up, what did not pass today, will pass tomorrow. Everything that we face is a challenge that was meant to be there in order for our people to survive and thrive. 

If you ever need help, support, or someone that will listen to you, reach out to me and Students Supporting Israel. We will always have your back, you will never walk alone.

Am Israel Chai.

About the Author
Ilan Sinelnikov is the Founder and President of the national Students Supporting Israel movement.
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