Last week I worried in this space that our college students were ill-equipped to defend American Jewry's pro-Israel position. I asked for a volunteer to explain what's going on. Luckily, Donald Cohen-Cutler, a UC Davis freshman and an international relations major, stepped up to the plate.
I say "luckily" because events on campus are even worse than I had suspected. Of course, I remember the beginnings of the Jewish-Muslim rift on campus during the first intifada. But I don't remember blatant insults to Jewish ritual and history. That's what's happening now (see story, page 10).
Holocaust Remembrance Day at both UC Berkeley and UC Davis was sabotaged by the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Students for Justice in Palestine; 75 were arrested at Berkeley. Prayers for the Jewish dead were interrupted with shouts and jeers equating the martyrs of the Shoah over 50 years ago to Palestinian bombers. At Davis, the Sacramento Bee reported that among 300 protesters were those who called Jews "Nazis" and referred to Israel as a "racist state."
"It infuriates me to hear these insults," Cohen-Cutler told me. "I couldn't do nothing."
He could take action. In the hours before the Yom HaShoah protest, Cohen-Cutler gathered 65 students, including many non-Jews, for a candlelighting protest.
Their presence helped restore dignity to the Jewish calendar, whose commemoration of the Holocaust is intended to ensure against future racist wars.
"This is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Millions of people died because of the way they believed. Racist rhetoric from either side is what causes hate," Cohen-Cutler told the Bee.
Since the protest, he and his friend Jesse Friedman of Thousand Oaks have been organizing a new national campus group -- Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue -- that he characterizes as a "Jewish humanitarian group."
"I'm a liberal supporter of Israel," Cohen-Cutler told me. "But the largest majority of my fellow students are standing silent."
What does a liberal supporter of Israel believe?
Cohen-Cutler was born in 1983, and his politics are shaped by the regrettable shadow of Israel's incursion into Lebanon and the indictment of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. To the Hillel activist and Calabasas High School grad, liberal politics today must face the limitations of Ariel Sharon's military policies, while insisting on Israel's right to defend itself.
"My group looks at the whole picture. I'm with Israel, but I'm not with the occupation. There is no justice in suicide bombings. At the same time, Israel can't succeed by stomping on Arab buildings."
Cohen-Cutler explained that Jewish liberal students today are caught in the middle. A popular organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, is blatant in its anti-Israel stance. It includes many Jews.
The opposition takes the form of Campus Republicans or local groups like Aggies for Israel, or, more vehemently, Students for Justice in Israel, which Cohen-Cutler characterizes as too one-sided. To him, neither the left nor right are acceptable.
"We have to stand up without becoming extremists," he told me. "Jews are told to pursue justice, not just for ourselves but for all humanity. We want to help people see that the Jewish community is not full of evil oppressors but with people who fight the evil oppression."
As for his fellow students, they need educating. Justice, Justice will organize rallies and protest bias in the media coverage.
"We need to let the world know that Israel is still under attack and needs to defend herself," he said. "This campus is not apathetic, it just doesn't know where to go."
Here's a young man with an answer.