It seems one cannot open a newspaper or social media site these days without encountering articles detailing the latest anti-Semitic and racist acts on US college campuses. Swastikas drawn on dorm room walls, videos of drunken fools muttering expletives about Jews and a desire to kill them, student government bodies conflating Jews and Israel to deny basic rights such as access to Kosher food because – heaven forbid – that could be construed as “pro-Israel.”
My fellow Jewish mothers and I often discuss our concerns about the college experiences awaiting our own children. What does the future hold for Jews in U.S. academia if revered educational institutions such as Harvard, Brown, Emory, Oberlin, Duke, Rutgers, NYU, Columbia, George Washington University, the University of Michigan, the entire UC System (I could go on, but you get the picture) harbor a range of anti-Semitism from biased, anti-Zionist faculty members to vitriolic student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine whose intent and actions render our children outsiders? Kick a stone, and you will find an anti-Semitic movement in the halls of our elite institutions.
I never experienced this type of anti-Semitism at Brown or Harvard Law School. My education in ignorant, irrational hate occurred in Oxford. As a master’s student of Modern Middle Eastern History, I found myself in what I can only describe as a rejectionist Middle East Centre. In the spring of 2002, I walked down the center of town and saw Israeli flags spray painted with swastikas almost daily. I saw professors harassed for objecting to speaking engagements extended to Holocaust deniers. I was obliged to defend Israel’s very right to exist as a foundational premise to a thesis on Israeli electoral reform laws. A great deal of the education I received in Oxford centered on who I am and what central tenets of my identity I am not able to compromise.
While the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement will never succeed in undermining Israel’s economy or right to self-determination, it stands a very good chance of undermining the next generation of Zionists. I will go even further and say that it threatens the future of American Jewry.
To fit into many progressive, liberal movements on campuses today, our Jewish youth are being asked to choose between their identities as Jews and lovers of Israel and their political preferences. The litmus test for entry into progressive society is whether one is willing to shed this identity and spit on one’s own history, upbringing, and family. It is not only the outspoken Zionists who must make this choice, either. In such dark corners, every Jew is to be regarded with a jaundiced eye with respect to his or her views on Israel.
This is the modern-day Sophie’s Choice facing our youth as they head off into the world without us for the first time. Either they stand strong against ignorance and irrational hate and find themselves ostracized from organizations and causes important to them, or they must make a Faustian bargain and shed their Jewish, Zionist identities as the price of admission into student government, progressive political movements, and everyday social life on campus.
So, what are we to do? Recently, I have heard some rumblings among Jewish parents suggesting that the answer may be to turn our backs on these revered institutions of higher learning in favor of online degrees to shelter our children. Others have promoted sending our children to Israeli universities. There are a great many wonderful Israeli universities from which to choose, but I staunchly reject the choice to retreat from this challenge to our Jewish identity and future in America.
Generations of Jews before us also suffered overt anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses, held their chins high, and won us a place in the ivory towers. We owe it to them not to run with our tails between our legs and allow the clock to be turned back to a time when Jews were not welcome in these institutions. We may not be able to control the climate at universities today, but we certainly can control how we prepare our offspring to face it. That is fully within our power.
Every Jewish parent today must add to their list of skills to impart to their children the coping mechanisms to stand firmly in the face of anti-Semitism on college campuses, be confident in their identity, and know who their allies are and how to access their support system. Every confirmation class, every Jewish high school, and every youth group should be making this a priority. We need a curriculum to prepare our children for the onslaught awaiting them. We must inculcate in our children an unassailable sense of self. The future of American Zionism and Judaism rests firmly in our hands.