From last year’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association to protests at campuses across the country, it’s apparent that colleges are not the friendliest places for pro-Israeli students and advocates these days.
Even before this summer’s violence erupted between Israel and Hamas, people scribbled hateful messages about the Jewish state last school year at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), according to senior Alex Beyzer. There’s also an active anti-Israel website run by a CSUN math professor, and efforts have been made to bring the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to campus.
But these incidents and demonstrations of prejudice didn’t stop Beyzer from standing up for the country he loves.
“A lot of people simply don’t know what’s going on outside of their little bubble in their college lives,” he said. “They’re very vulnerable to hearing some kind of outrageous claim that would spark biased emotions toward Israel. It’s important to be proactive and show that we’re a friendly, united group of people who are only trying to promote peace.”
Beyzer is the leader of Matadors for Israel, CSUN’s pro-Israel group that has six dedicated members. The students partner with StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group, as well as Hillel and Chabad. They host movie screenings, put together seminars on the history of Israel and current events happening in the Middle East, and hold their own Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, where they give out free falafel and demonstrate their support for Israel.
“Given what’s going on in the world with the anti-Israel bias and what’s going on in Europe, which is reminiscent of what was happening pre-Holocaust, it’s very important for us to be active, spread the word, and inform the public that Israel is not the evil state that people make it out to be,” Beyzer said.
In Westwood at UCLA, pro-Israel students can join Bruins for Israel, which is run by senior Eytan Davidovits and has around 300 members. Last school year, he and his group organized a West Coast Students Conference that brought together the boards of different pro-Israel student groups from college campuses throughout the state. They hope to make it an annual event, he said.
UCLA has been a hotbed of controversy in recent months when it comes to Israel. In the spring, Students for Justice in Palestine was among the groups on campus that asked those running for student government to pledge not to go on trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hasbara Fellowships. Ultimately, 18 of 30 candidates signed the pledge.
“There are so many groups focused on spreading Israel hatred that it’s important that there is a group to counter it,” Davidovits said. “We got signatures to say that the ethics pledge should not be tolerated.”
In February, UCLA’s student government also held a contentious, all-night debate on a divestment resolution, which ultimately failed. Davidovits expects that there might be even more issues this year because of the fighting between Israel and Hamas.
“I think tensions are going to be heightened,” Davidovits said. “The campus climate after the divestment resolution last year was extremely hostile, and now I think it’s going to be even worse. I think they will desperately try to bring it in a much harsher form much sooner. We are preparing for that.”
Unlike its peers at UCLA and CSUN, USC’s pro-Israel group Trojans for Israel (TFI) hasn’t had such problems with pro-Palestinian organizations, according to president Judah Joseph, whose primary goals this school year include informing students about what’s happening in the Middle East.
“I’m confident in TFI’s efforts on campus, because I believe campus leaders want to understand this conflict more fully. News coverage may have piqued their interest, and TFI aims to quench their thirst for knowledge,” Joseph said.
TFI partners with other student clubs on campus, and every semester it holds leadership dinners, where attendees can listen to speakers talk about the relationship between Israel and the United States and current events.
Joseph said it’s crucial that his organization exists “in order to educate campus leaders and to encourage them to think critically. The USC campus leaders of today will become the CEOs, politicians and influential Americans of tomorrow. As such, it’s imperative that we help them to understand the issues facing Israel.”
Lizzie Stein, an Occidental College student, was inspired to support the Holy Land after visiting.
“I went to Israel and studied abroad for a semester,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with the country. I felt this was a home for me. I felt very attached to Israel, and I knew I wanted to get involved with Israel advocacy on campus.”
When she came back, she joined J Street U Occidental, a chapter of the liberal advocacy group that supports a two-state solution. This year, she is president of the club, which brings speakers to campus to discuss global politics and shows movies. Last fall, they created a campaign where students designed postcards saying they were in favor of a two-state solution. Afterward, the postcards were mailed to the local congressional office.
Overall, Stein said, there hasn’t been any discrimination against J Street U Occidental. On campus, “There was one incident of a swastika being drawn on a whiteboard. That was taken care of quickly by the administration.”
She said, however, that she has brought students together and “been able to have conversations and avoid the anti-Semitism.”
Stein said she was surprised to return to school recently and attend a Hillel dinner where the war in Gaza went unmentioned.
“Over the summer, people were hearing a lot more about Israel and the conflict. There was not one mention of what happened [this summer] at [the] Hillel dinner, though.”
Although the fighting has died down, Stein said that as the head of the club, she still has the desire to talk about it on campus and keep the conversation alive. Like her fellow pro-Israel leaders at the other schools, she wants her peers to be educated about current events in Israel.
“People are going back to the status quo of not talking about it,” she said. “What happened in Gaza over the summer demonstrates an urgency. That old status quo is not sustainable, and we need to change course.”