Jewish Journal

Quiet war on campus: Israel remains under attack despite fewer public protests

Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 21, 2008 | 1:28 am

'Palestinian Holocaust' exhibit

'Palestinian Holocaust' exhibit

The Anteaters for Israel began setup at 7 a.m., long before most students at University of California Irvine (UCI -- home of the Anteaters) had even crawled out of bed. Midterms be damned; the 60th anniversary of the modern Jewish state was a day away, and they wanted to celebrate. But even more, the Anteaters wanted to organize an inaugural response to the annual Palestinian Awareness Week, a parade of anti-Israel speakers that in May 2006 carried the theme, "Holocaust in the Holy Land."

The Anteaters' answer: iFest.

While vendors hawked art and clothes, hot links and Hawaiian coffee, Jewish students handed out postcards featuring a map of the Middle East placed over the body of a tanned, nearly naked man, with Israel represented by a Speedo-covered sliver: "Israel," the card stated, "it's not as big as you think."

Non-Jewish students, lured by the possibility of winning an iPod Touch, spent 60 seconds in a tunnel memorizing Israel's accomplishments. Sandwich boards lined Ring Road, the main walkway through campus, promoting Israel's softer side: humanitarian aid, democratic principles, agricultural advancements, technological achievements.

"I see a desert turned into an oasis, not only culturally or economically or politically but literally," said Zack Sher, a self-described "Larry David, curly hair, matzah ball soup on the weekend kind of Jew," who was promoting his spiritual homeland from inside a pink gorilla suit. "This is our chance to give Israel some positive visibility."

At UCI, positive visibility is the least Israel needs. For those involved in college Jewish life across the country, Irvine has become synonymous with campus anti-Semitism -- a holdover from the Second Intifada, a flashbang of anti-Israel speakers invited to campus by pro-Palestinian students.

Elsewhere the M.O. for attacking the Jewish state has evolved since anti-Israel campus activism first exploded onto the scene in 2002 during the Second Intifada. It has since taken root in academic departments and been emboldened by the outspoken criticism of a former U.S. president. Although many college campuses appear to have dropped the vitriol and the confrontational protests over Israel, the attacks on the Jewish state have moved deep inside the Ivory Towers. Despite an ethos that university students should question everything, many feel uncomfortable and unprepared in challenging their professors. Apathy, pro-Israel campus advocates say, is quietly eroding support for the Jewish state, even among Jews.

At UCI, the approach of Israel's opponents has long been less subtle. And yet, this is not your big brother's UCI.

When Daniel Alouan enrolled in 2000, he found campus life so uncomfortable he couldn't conceive finishing his degree in Irvine. Each week, he said, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) would bring another speaker to campus who would trash Israel and slander its supporters as Nazis. Fliers for Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and Hillel, apolitical ones that simply said "Shabbat Shalom," would conspicuously disappear from approved locations. Jewish students showed the fear in their faces.

"Every time you would go somewhere, they knew you were a Jewish guy, and they wanted to know that," Alouan said. "They never threw rocks; they would just call names and say stuff. They told me, 'Go to Russia where you came from.' My dad is from Lebanon and mom from Syria. But they think all Jews come from Russia."

Alouan, now 26 and back in his native Brazil, left UCI after his sophomore year in 2002 and enrolled at University of Pennsylvania, where, according to Hillel, 30 percent of undergraduate and graduate students identify as Jewish.

But even Penn has had moments in recent memory that made members of the Jewish community cringe. Penn President Amy Gutmann still catches criticism for posing at her Halloween party two years ago with a student dressed as a suicide bomber, something she later said was a mistake.

Indeed, no school is immune. And during the next month, as thousands of Jewish students ship off to begin their college careers and many more return to continue it, they will be reminded that it really is different being Jewish.

Some will be surprised to hear Jewish professors condemn Zionism; others shocked that campus activism could be so uncivil. But many, many more will move from class to class and party to party without paying much mind to the din around them and having even less of an idea of what else they could do.

"The Jewish community is like a deer in the headlights," said Charles Jacobs, president and co-founder of The David Project, which, along with StandWithUs, has been a grass-roots leader in raising awareness about and educating students to combat academic anti-Zionism. "Most of the stuff on campus is not a Jew getting hit over the head, but it is this slow build of Israel is bad, Israel is bad, Israel is bad."

The challenges vary from campus to campus. Statistically speaking, no one knows just how pervasive anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are on American campuses. No one is keeping score. But many Jewish leaders say anecdotal reports of conflict with pro-Palestinian students and faculty have declined dramatically.

"The amount of anti-Israel activity on campus is so negligible that it is almost impossible for students to find unless they are looking on all but maybe three campuses a year," said Jonathan Kessler, director of student programs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

At the same time, though, scholarly criticism of Zionism and the American-Israel relationship has achieved new respectability. This is most recognizable in the popularity of the "The Israel Lobby" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former President Jimmy Carter's best-selling "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

The effect is already apparent on many college campuses, where Palestinian awareness weeks are now called "anti-apartheid week." At UCI, the old name remains, but the general themes and speech topics incorporate the apartheid paradigm.

"The reality is that verbal anti-Semitism spurred by controversial student groups unfortunately continues to exist on campus," five UCI Jewish student leaders stated in a March letter supporting the administration. "However, Jewish student life is able to expand and prosper due to the constructive approach taken by Hillel Foundation of Orange County and Jewish Federation, in conjunction with the support of UCI Administration."

Despite improvements in organized Jewish life, UCI remains far from a quiet campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anti-Israelism there is unique from that alleged at other universities because, instead of emanating from left-wing Mideast studies professors, it begins with the students.

That much was evident from the presence of Muslim students along the edges of iFest, where they were handing out fliers for a speech that evening from Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Israel darling who wrote "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering" and in January praised Hezbollah as representing "hope."

The Finkelstein lecture, which came at the midpoint of Israel's campus celebration, would usher in the pro-Palestinian students' own week focusing on that small slice of the Levant. Their events, anchored on Ring Road around a mock security wall from which a blood-stained Israeli flag hung, were promoted under the heading, "Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust."

"Freedom of speech on this campus is a little over the line," said Ryan Stomel, a third-year student from Westlake Village who never wears his Alpha Epsilon Pi letters. "I can handle myself, but at certain times it is intense and hostile. I'm not going to go around wearing a Jewish star because you never know what is going to happen."

Muslim Student Union attempting to protest during a presentation by Daniel Pipes at UCI

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