"Israel Independence Day, 2002 and Counting..." read the sea of royal blue T-shirts adorning members of the UCLA Jewish Student Union (JSU) -- a positive statement at a time when Jewish students are receiving a great deal of negative publicity on college campuses across the country.
More than 120 Jewish students, including JSU members, gathered at UCLA's Meyerhoff Park on April 11 to oppose an anti-Zionist rally organized by the Peace and Justice Coalition. The coalition, a new group on the UCLA campus, is an alliance of student organizations, including the Muslim Student Association, the African Student Union, Samahang Filipino, the Asian Pacific Coalition, the Vietnamese Student Union, Concerned Asian Pacific-Islander Students for Action, the United Arab Society, the Iranian Student Group and the Pakistani Student Association.
"Our purpose in being here is that we believe before the average student makes a decision on this issue, they should be given accurate information," said Justin Levin, president of the JSU. "The Palestinian leadership is the organization that is truly oppressing the Palestinians.... Israel is trying to make peace."
Countering Levin's opinion, members of the Peace and Justice Coalition vehemently condemned Israeli procedure. "This is not about Palestinian politics. It is about land, occupation and justice," said one pro-Palestinian student. Li'i Furumoto, a Muslim convert and director of a Muslim outreach program for high school students said, "I don't agree with what is going on with suicide bombings, but I am not in their position, and they are reacting in such a way because of their terrible conditions."
Despite tensions, the rally remained peaceful. "My mom told me not to come," said Jewish student Viki Rapoport. "I'm glad I did. It shows how united the Jewish students are."
Peaceful is more than can be said for many college campuses in California. "Thank God we live in Westwood and not Berkeley," Levin said.
The Berkeley Hillel was recently the target of anti-Jewish graffiti, one of many anti-Israel incidents on campus.
With the conflict escalating in the Middle East, Jewish students in Southern California are feeling the tension more than ever. At UC Irvine, the UC campus with the largest Muslim population, an April 11 rally put on by Muslim students was "supposed to be a peaceful march for humanitarian rights, but it wasn't any of the above," said Sheila Nowfar, president of the Orange County Hillel. "There were signs saying, 'Zionism and Nazism: two heads on the same coin,' and signs comparing Hitler to Sharon."
UC Riverside has experienced anti-Semitic vandalism, as well as a threatening response to a letter to the editor by Hillel Director Chaim Shapiro. "There were attacks against me personally, slamming Israelis, slamming Israeli soldiers and calling Jews 'animals,'" Shapiro said.
While many Jewish students have been increasingly vocal, others are "less eager to be publicly Jewish," said Becca Birken, Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow at California State University Northridge. Birken, who organized a Hillel trip to Disneyland that was planned to include a "Havdalah" service in the park, changed her agenda when students decided that it "would be too visual for them."
However, the majority of the Jewish student population has refused to be subdued. "I don't expect violence on this campus, but I do expect to see more rallies," Levin said.
Other campuses are working to organize programs that have a generally educational focus. Nowfar and the Orange County Hillel are planning a tolerance program at UC Irvine with the Museum of Tolerance that focuses on accepting religious differences.
Also at UC Irvine is Anteaters for Israel, a new student-run, pro-Israel political organization started by student Sarah Tolkoff. Tolkoff, along with the Israeli consulate, Hillel of Orange County and Betar on Campus, a group that says its mission is to present the public with accurate facts about the Middle East, are planning a panel discussion titled, "Did You Know: Before You Take Sides, Ask Questions." The panel will feature speakers such as Tashbeih Sayyed, editor of Pakistan Today, David Suissa of Suissa Miller Advertising and Avi Davis of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies. "We suspect that the event will be protested heavily. Two of the speakers have death threats against them," Tolkoff said.