What Israelis need to know about the challenges US Jewish students face

It may seem like a truism — to say that conducting Jewish life on American college campuses is becoming increasingly fraught — and sometimes downright dangerous. Yet a reality that is so highly evident among a US audience does not necessarily resonate overseas.

Whether one can openly be identified by a piece of clothing or jewelry, or perhaps by dint of attending a Jewish or Israel-related event, it has become abundantly clear that college “safe spaces” are increasingly closed to Jews.

As the Jewish community’s future leaders attempt to navigate how and what to think, they are attacked for their very identity. A recent study by the AMCHA Initiative, which monitors anti-Semitism across 400 college campuses in the US, revealed that students who espoused pro-Israel sentiments increased by 70 percent last year. And since 2015, AMCHA logged some 2,500 anti-Semitic incidents in its database. A recent American Jewish Committee poll found that 36% of respondents thought the climate on college campuses towards pro-Israel students was “more hostile than a year ago.”

Simultaneously, the Israeli public remains largely unaware of the amount of energy and commitment it takes Jewish students to remain proud of their Jewishness and supportive of Israel. Thankfully, many students persevere in the fight to uphold their values. But if Israelis are to better connect with the US Jewish community, it is imperative that they understand the challenges American students face on a daily basis as well as the inspiring efforts they undertake to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.

This is precisely why the Ruderman Family Foundation has launched a series of seven videos illustrating the landscape Jewish students face on today’s college campuses. Each segment features a student on a different campus speaking openly about Jewish identity, the challenges they face and how they respond.

Watch as Dominican-American student Azriel Ottenwalder shares crucial insights into what it means to navigate his college campus while identifying as a Jewish, Zionist, gay man of color. Ottenwalder’s struggle personifies how Jews of diverse ethnic backgrounds on college campuses are often forced to choose between constituencies representing different components of their multifaceted identity.

For Ottenwalder, this challenge is particularly complex. While the rising phenomenon of intersectionality (the idea that all forms of social oppression are linked) celebrates diversity, it pushes out students who do not align with a certain narrative. As a Dominican Jew, Ottenwalder is not fully accepted into the Dominican community. He is further ostracized by the LGBTQ and liberal Jewish communities – both of which he belongs to as an unapologetic lover of Israel. “It’s as if identifying yourself as a Zionist disqualifies all your other identities,” Ottenwalder explains. That anti-Zionist chorus, he fears, is becoming more radical by the day.

In another video, Elisa Ceasar, a student and pro-Israel activist at City College of New York, shares that her experience goes beyond not fitting into certain spheres and has escalated into full-blown anti-Semitism. As president of her college’s Hillel chapter, receiving threatening letters from Palestinian activists and finding Swastikas spray-painted on the door of the Hillel office are part of her new normal.

These young men and women, who are doing nothing more than expressing a deeply felt love and connection to the land of Israel and their heritage, should not fear doing so. And yet, there are steep costs associated with their views and identities. How can we let this stand?

We cannot. As global Jewish communal leadership goes through generation-defining changes, our young and emerging leaders are at the vanguard of an ancient, albeit metastasizing struggle with the modern twist of intersectionality.

If members of the younger generations are to blossom into the leaders we hope they can be in the years and decades to come, we must ensure that they are not navigating battlegrounds like the campus arena alone. We must show genuine and tangible support for these future leaders of American and world Jewry, making them aware that as a community we will listen to them and explore ways to better support them.

If our efforts are effective, we will see more success stories like that of Shoshana Finkel, who in our video series describes her experience with the diverse and vibrant Jewish life at Brandeis University, including through social gatherings, pro-Israel events and multiple prayer options.

At the same time, Israeli and American Jewry must make clear that they are in this fight together. To this end, our foundation strives to show Israelis that there are Jewish students in the US who take with the utmost seriousness their commitment to remain proud of their Jewish identity and support of Israel.

The stakes are high. Countering anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment requires physical, emotional and moral courage on a daily basis. But with greater awareness among Israeli Jewry, American students will receive the boost of support they need during these challenging times.

About the Author
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to promote disability inclusion and strengthen Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.
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