When the American Studies Association decided last winter to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the rhetoric among many Israel advocacy organizations suggested that the Jewish state was at risk of becoming a target in the world of academia. But what was a just a possibility when students all across the country left for summer break has become a more immediate concern as students return for the fall semester.
Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza generated a slew of negative coverage over the summer and, observers note, groups aligned with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are pursuing their campaign against Israel with renewed vigor.
“It’s difficult,” Aviva Slomich, international director of campus outreach for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), said of the experience of students who want to advocate on behalf of Israel. “Even on a campus that’s pretty peaceful, you’re talking about a serious subject.”
Last month, CAMERA held its annual Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference in Boston with 50 students from around the United States and Canada. Slomich said she hopes students walked away with even more confidence this year than in years past. In addition to the regular programs that the organization has had success with in the past, this year’s event featured some new additions, like tips on how to successfully debate and a program called My Zionism.
“It’s basically taking back the word ‘Zionism’ and being proud of the meaning of the word,” explained Slomich. “It’s something one would be proud to be recognized as, unlike what people are trying to smear it as, as a dirty word.”
Another project drew on the experiences of young people recently returned from trips to Israel and was called Witnesses of History. Students who attended the conference heard from others who had seen the Gaza conflict firsthand and could relay what it was like to be in Israel during the 50-day war.
“The goal is to get the voices out of the people who’ve experienced it,” Slomich said. “We have to make people understand that Israel is a very happy country.”
Prior to the convention, CAMERA received multiple letters from students who expressed nervousness about heading back to school. By the end of the conference though, Slomich said she felt the overall confidence of the students rise.
In Maryland, local college students have been following the news from other campuses, but say they feel lucky to attend school in an environment that is generally very supportive of Israel.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Michael Krasna, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, from Boca Raton, Fla. At UMd., the student
population is nearly one-quarter Jewish, according to 2013 Hillel figures. “There’s not a lot [of student bodies] like this.”
Krasna, who worked at a table at the UMd. Hillel’s new student barbecue last week, described the College Park campus as “peaceful” and largely “a-political.” He said he was shocked to hear about some of the things that have been happening on other campuses around the country.
Late last month, Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reported that a Jewish student at Temple University who was a CAMERA campus fellow was
hit in the face by another student standing at a Students for Justice in Palestine table during a verbal altercation between the pair. The incident occurred at the school’s move-in day student activities fair. The student alleged that he was also the recipient of anti-Semitic slurs hurled at him by the assailant and SJP members, but Temple’s SJP denied the use of hate speech and instead insisted the student had been harassing the organization’s table.
Elsewhere, pro-Palestinian students have held rallies on campuses, dispensed mock “eviction notices” to students and staffed fake check points they say symbolize the experiences of Palestinians living under Israeli control.
Krasna said he is confident in UMd.’s pro-Israel lean — the president of the university attended last year’s Hillel welcome barbecue and gave an impassioned pro-Israel talk — but he isn’t ruling out the possibility that things could be different this year, given the most recent conflict.
Amna Farooqi, a junior, has noticed one difference this school year in the two weeks she’s been back on campus.
“If anything, more people are definitely interested,” she said.
Farooqi manned the J Street U table at Hillel’s barbeque. She said the group — which is affiliated with the national J Street organization that recently failed to gain membership to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations over charges that it was not sufficiently pro-Israel in its outlook — plans to hold some debriefing events in the upcoming weeks to provide students with a space where they can feel comfortable asking questions and learning about the conflict.
“A lot of people have questions,” she said. “We want to give people that space.”