Jewish Journal

ADL prepares students to face campus anti-Semitism

by Ryan Torok

Posted on Mar. 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm

A group of students received their task during a recent workshop at New Community Jewish High School: Craft a response to college students who liken the Israeli occupation to Nazi Germany.

In the proposed scenario, a few fraternity brothers digitally altered a photograph of fellow Jewish student Seth, placing his head on the body of a Nazi soldier. In the image, the soldier held a gun to a concentration camp prisoner. Beneath the photo were the words: “Seth takes aim at the Palestinians.”

The high school students agreed that the frat brothers’ actions were disturbing and unacceptable, but they couldn’t agree on what would be the best way to handle it if they were in Seth’s place.
One insisted it was a hate-crime and that the legal system should be involved. Another student said school administration should intervene and the students should be expelled.

The disagreements continued for several minutes until one suggested something different — educate the fraternity brothers.

“I like that,” said one of the group members, and the other students agreed.

The New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) students are the latest to participate in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s new interactive workshop, a customized version of “Confronting Anti-Semitism,” a national ADL program that develops middle school and high school students’ skills for combating anti-Semitism or anti-Israel activities. The workshop at NCJHS focuses specifically on preparing students for what they might face once they’re in college.

“We decided to try something different in our region and tailor [‘Confronting Anti-Semitism’] to college-bound students, teaching them about confronting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism when they get to college,” said Alison Mayersohn, ADL’s senior associate regional director.

Run as a pilot program last year with NCJHS’ 2011 senior class, this is the program’s first official year. Held over the course of a week, the ADL program is a two-part program, with part one informational and interactive, and part two mostly interactive. ADL, one of the nation’s premier human relations and civil rights agencies, worked with half of the NCJHS senior class this past fall, and the agency worked with the other half of the senior class during the week of Feb 13. ADL held six sessions, with each group of students participating in two sessions, each session lasting from 55 minutes to a little more than one hour.

Students of the ADL program receive ADL materials and resources, including “Fighting Back: A Handbook for Responding to Anti-Israel Campaigns on College and University Campuses” and “Israel: A Resource Guide,” an advocacy guide of Israel-related terms, responses to inaccuracies about Israel and key dates in Israel’s history.

In part one of the program, Matt Friedman, ADL’s associate director and instructor of this year’s class, defines anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He explained to the students that not all criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, that there is legitimate criticism of Israel, including of Israeli’s government, the media and other domestic issues. Friedman taught where the criticism crosses the line, referring to the three “D’s” of anti-Semitism:  double standards, demonization and delegimitzation.

Last year, the pilot program was so successful — and student evaluations so positive — the school asked ADL to return to conduct the same program for its 2012 seniors, said Cheri Mayman, director of marketing at NCJHS.

By encouraging students to intelligently stand up for Israel, when someone is being anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist, the ADL program teaches one of the lessons that NCJHS teacher Rabbi David Vorspan emphasizes in his Jewish studies class — wisdom. The teaching involves a passage of Talmud that says: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be men.”

“We felt the benefits of this [workshop] were too important to pass up the opportunity” of having it again at New Jew, Vorspan said.

Leading the program at NCJHS, Friedman is filling it for ADL Associate Regional Director Ariella Schusterman, who helped design the local program, while she is on maternity leave.

The ADL, which has offices in more than 20 regions nationwide, has taught versions of the “Confronting Anti-Semitism” program to religious school and confirmation classes, including the religious schools at Sinai Temple in Westwood and Temple Sinai of Palm Desert.

ADL offers this program for free at NCJHS — “It’s a community service,” Mayersohn said — and would like to bring the program to other high schools. Currently, NCJHS is the only Jewish high school to embrace the local ADL program.

During the workshop at NCJHS on Feb. 16, 19 students worked on group exercises under Friedman’s guidance. Friedman had passed out pieces of paper outlining real-life scenarios of on-campus anti-Semitism or anti-Israel activity. The students discussed how the scenarios made them feel and what would be ways to respond if they were students at those schools.

When the NCJHS students reconvened following the workshops, they shared their scenarios (e.g., student-led anti-Israel rallies, including an “apartheid wall” and a mock checkpoint) and their responses.

A classroom debate over the best way to handle such situations — telling the appropriate personnel at the university, learning campus free-speech rules, fighting back by planning pro-Israel programming on campus, being proactive rather than reactive — led to a conversation about cyber-bullying and whether it’s a crime.
The answer depends on numerous specifics about the bullying, Friedman said.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, he told the class. So much of the truth lies in the space between black and white. Luckily, Friedman added, Jews are used to “nuance.” He drew parallels to issues they’re familiar with — like kosher laws – which rely on nuance.

Horrific real-life anti-Semitic scenarios aside, the ADL program shies away from fear mongering.

The program “doesn’t mean [to say that] every campus is a hot-bed of anti-Semitism,” Friedman said. However, there is acknowledgment of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incidents at colleges such as UC Riverside and UC Irvine.

The harsh truth is necessary, Friedman said. Without this program, “These kids are only getting one narrative. In college, [they] will see a different take on the Palestinian conflict. How are they going to respond to that and how are they going to handle that?”

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