With the rise of anti-Israel attitudes on college campuses, many college-bound students are considering their Jewishness and beliefs regarding Israel as a major factor in their college selection. In recent years, issues such as the size of the Hillel and the degree of activity with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel on campuses have become just as relevant to Jewish high schoolers and their parents as the academics.
Justin Welfeld, a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, said that Jewish population was more of a factor for him than the size or location of a school.
“I knew that I wanted going to Hillel and meeting Jewish friends to be part of my college experience, so I only looked at schools that could provide me that opportunity,” he said.
Naomi Ravick, a Walt Whitman High School senior, admitted that being Jewish contributed more to her college selection process than she thought it would.
The very concerning phenomenon in the past few years of Jewish students getting onto college campuses and suddenly being told that Israel is not what they thought it was and then becoming anti-Israel, is very dangerous. — Haggai Lavie, Israeli engagement director at Beth Tfiloh
“I would be uncomfortable walking around on a campus with a noticeable anti-Semitic presence,” she said.
Like Naomi, Beth Tfiloh senior Jenna Balk is concerned about anti-Israel sentiment.
“I am extremely worried about being judged for being Jewish, even though I’m not particularly observant,” she said.
Shayna Brookman, also a senior at Beth Tfiloh and an otherwise proud student of Israeli descent, went so far as to say that she might be reluctant to tell people other than her close friends that she is Jewish to avoid encountering any potential problems.
Issues such as Kashrut and Jewish life on campus have always factored into college choice for many Jewish students, but “the BDS movement has become the newest factor,” said Haggai Lavie, the Israeli engagement director at Beth Tfiloh.
Even though they can control their exposure to BDS to some degree through their school choice, many students recognize that wherever they go, anti-Israel sentiment is “kind of unavoidable,” Ravick asserted. In particular, students looking to pursue a liberal arts education, such as Bethesda Chevy Chase High School senior Hannah Robinson, have come to expect there will be BDS activity at any school they attend.
While most students acknowledged the likelihood of anti-Israel and BDS activity on campus, many of them expressed different ways of approaching the issue, or rather, of how to react when the issue arises.
Brookman declared that she would attempt to avoid the conversation about Israel on campus at all costs.
“I would never start a political conversation on campus about Israel. If there was ever a big fight about Israel on campus, I might say something, but otherwise I would keep quiet,” she said. “I don’t have the desire to fight with anyone or get worked up arguing, because I already know where I stand on the issue.”
On the contrary, Robinson hopes to “have actual discussions about Israel instead of just really heated, angry debates.
“The main thing I was looking for was a place conducive to open dialogue, and not just completely polarized discussions about Israel,” she said.
Similarly, Ravick said: “I honestly hope that college provides me with opportunities to talk to, educate and learn more about other people’s views, especially on subjects like Israel. … The best you can try to do is learn from [the opposition] in whatever way you can.”
In his sessions with the Beth Tfiloh senior class on how to combat BDS and other anti- Israel movements on campus, Lavie provided several pieces of advice about handling potential situations on campus.
“First, Jewish students have to have a good understanding of what Israel is and what Israel’s story is,” he said. “It is important to understand that it is a complex story and not a perfect story, and Israel has made many mistakes. But when you put it into context, Israel’s story is justified.
“The second thing Jewish students need to understand is who they are talking to when they talk about Israel,” he continued. “The chance that you’ll manage to persuade an [adamant] anti-Israel activist is almost zero. Instead, you have to target students on campus who don’t have any exposure to Israel and explain it to them for what it really is to you so that they can have a truthful understanding. If not, they will be exposed to a very narrow view of Israel.
“The very concerning phenomenon in the past few years of Jewish students getting onto college campuses and suddenly being told that Israel is not what they thought it was and then becoming anti-Israel, is very dangerous.”
Meital Abraham is a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.