“Knowledge for College:” Warning for Jewish College Students & Parents

Is your high school student looking at potential colleges? They’ve done the best they can in their classes and on their SAT’s and ACTs. They’ve worked at being a good citizen and written their essays to prove it. You’ve checked out the universities online and hopefully had an opportunity to visit the campuses. Everyone in the family is nervous. What’s the best fit for your kid to be their home for the next four years? Wait a minute…is your family Jewish? Unfortunately, there’s more information you must consider. What kind of environment are Jews experiencing on the campuses to which you are choosing to apply?

What? Isn’t this 2018? Aren’t Jews just part of the natural landscape of a college campus? Yes, but with a qualification. It’s a lesson we had to learn before we sent our child to college. As I was writing my book, “Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel,” which took me four years to write, my thirteen-year-old had grown to seventeen and now was ready to choose a college.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict had followed us home from Israel, and unfortunately egregious demonstrations and anti-Israel resolutions were repeatedly being passed by the student governments on many of the college campuses across the U.S. and Europe. The UCs were some of the worst, but so were most of the top schools across the country.

Don’t let your kids go off to college unprepared—our kids being verbally and sometimes physically attacked because they are Jewish is nothing we are used to, nor should we have to tolerate. It can be confusing seeing Israel being compared to Nazis and — swastikas, an intentionally offensive symbol to Jews of our murder as a people, being used to imply that Israel is doing the same to Palestinians.

Our kids may have been raised to care about Israel and sent their donations, but Israel was far away, nothing they gave thought to very often. Now the conflict may be thrust in their face. Be sure they are aware of that potential before they leave for college, what action they can take to protect themselves and if they want, to support Israel.

How onerous has the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel) and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) movements made it for Jewish students on the campus of your choice? Have they been attacked and spat on? Have Israeli speakers been prevented to make their presentations? Have resolutions against Israel been passed time and again? You need to find out before you choose the college for your child and make an informed decision.

I just attended this year’s parent’s discussion of Knowledge for College.  The prevalence of Palestinian demonstrations and resolutions seems to be just as pervasive. However I was relieved that at some colleges, even on UC campuses, the administrations are beginning to understand that free speech is essential not only for the Palestinian protestors, but the Jewish students as well.

A robust panel presented updates on atmospheres for Jewish students on college campuses:

Rabbi Evan Goodman is Executive Director of Santa Barbara Hillel, Arielle Mokhtarzadeh is a recent UCLA graduate and first generation American Jew of Iranian descent, Yoni Michanie is CAMERA’s (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) West Coast and Florida’s Campus Coordinator, Shmuel Avramov is Israel’s Emissary/Shaliah of the Jewish Agency for Israel to Hillel of Orange County and Lisa Armony, Executive Director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County. Each panelist provided unique perspectives on the current environment on campus for Jewish students.

Rabbi Goodman covered a wide range of enlightening information including background on the BDS

Rabbi Evan Goodman

Rabbi Evan Goodman

movement, an overview of college resources and considerations for Jewish students when applying to college, the steps to take to make students “Israel-ready” and what really works for students on campus.

He reviewed the aims of the BDS movement — to delegitimize Israel. He said, “BDS is not about affecting positive political change, nor is it about improving the situation for Palestinians. BDS seeks to create equivalence between apartheid South Africa of the 1980’s and Israel today. The goal is to make Israel a pariah, end the existence of the only Jewish nation-state, and extinguish the possibility of a two-state solution.”

It was clear to me, whereas Israelis have grown up with this Palestinian hatred of Israel, our precious next generation was being subjected to their hateful rhetoric possibly live for the first time. Not only the Jewish kids, but all of the kids on the college campus. What will happen if the next generation believes what the Palestinian demonstrators say without looking further? The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complex—nothing that should be taken for granted from soundbites shouted at demonstrations.

There is some good news. The rabbi told us that although the BDS and SJP had been successful on many campuses passing anti-Israel resolutions, ultimately some Chancellors, Presidents and Boards have later passed repudiations of those resolutions. Thus far, no university has divested from Israel nor companies doing business with Israel. He said the intentions of the Palestinian movements are “creating doubt in the mind of student leaders so that political leaders a decade or two from now will be unsupportive of Israel’s right to exist or defend itself.”

He advised us of the U.S. State Department’s evaluation of when anti-Israel speech crosses the line to anti-Semitism:

  • DE legitimization: denial of Israel’s right to exist or the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
  • Demonization: using classic anti-Semitic symbols to characterize Israel or Israelis.
  • Double Standards: holding Israel to standards not demanded of other countries.

Rabbi Goodman gave a helpful explanation of how the Palestinian movements use the theory of Intersectionality (the study of related systems of oppression) to promote their causes. By presenting Jews and Israel as powerful, white colonizers (a matter of their perspective, not fact), they often align with causes such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, immigration and income inequality to permeate their beliefs onto students across a broader spectrum on campus.

The rabbi acknowledged it can be disturbing and confusing to hear from participants of seemingly disparate factions like Black Lives Matter chanting, “From the desert to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Jewish students who want to work ethically to support Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) can be confronted by how Israel is portrayed by these groups, and their proclamations should be challenged and not simply accepted. In such a complex mess, understanding and answers won’t be found at the surface level.

We did hear some good news…Hillel and other Israel supportive organizations continue to be a vast support network at colleges across the nation. The internet lists of “worst places for Jewish students” can be unreliable, and while there may be challenges on campuses, on those same campuses Jewish life can simultaneously be rich and vibrant. Additionally, there are many opportunities for college students to visit Israel for free with trips such as Birthright.

Arielle Mikhtarzadeh

Arielle Mikhtarzadeh

Listening to Arielle Mikhtarzadeh, a new graduate of UCLA (ok, I know I went to USC but she made me feel better that her brother chose the right school : ), but seriously, you  can’t listen to her without feeling that our next Jewish generation is alive and well. She’s brilliant, well spoken, has a Jewish heart and cares about Israel — Amen. In 2017 she was elected UCLA’s USAC president.

She told of her first year at UCLA in 2014 (which I know at the same time being in Israel, was during Operation Protective Edge — the identical conflict of my book, when we toured amazing Israeli sights and repeatedly ran to hide in bomb shelters). It was a challenging year for Jewish students at UCLA; the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong” was found etched into a table at Bruin Cafe, a student was initially denied a leadership position in their student government based solely on her Jewish identity and swastikas had appeared on UC campuses across the state.

She told the story when she was elected and so proudly posted a mezuzah (biblical passages inscribed on parchment) on her doorpost—a Jewish tradition (something she could not have done in her country of Iran), and it was disappointingly ripped off, later determined to be a hate crime. In a joint community effort, 50 people crowded into the small office to watch as another mezuzah was rehung in its place.

She acknowledged it can be challenging to be Jewish on campus particularly when Palestinians erect their Apartheid Wall. But Jewish students nonetheless can choose to identify as Jews and still thrive on campus.

Yoni Micanie works for CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and he

Yoni MIchanie on left and Shmuel Avramov on right

Yoni Michanie (on left) and Shmuel Avramov (on right)

told the story of how he got a taste of how the reporting of the news could be distorted.

As a young IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldier, he was patrolling in Hebron at the Cave of Patriarchs when he was approached by a Palestinian youth with what turned out to be a plastic gun. The UN reporters who were close by took pictures and reported the incident in such a fashion that it didn’t honestly represent what had happened and it is obvious that the situation still leaves a foul taste in his mouth. Listening to his story I couldn’t help but think that he had just uncovered his life’s purpose, but at the time he hadn’t quite realized that fact.

Today, it’s Micanie’s job to help insure that the media covers Israel fairly. He spends lots of time on college campuses explaining the need for accurate reporting so that students can judge for themselves. He sees part of his job as helping young students understand the truth about events so they can form their own opinions.

Shmuel Avramov also served in the IDF as a combat officer and studied mechanical engineering. He works closely with UCI, Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton with regards to Israel and Jewish education. He enjoys teaching the students on campus about current events and the difference between their reality starting college after high school, and Israeli young adults who as men and women must all first serve in the military and risk their lives before later starting college after their service to their country. I couldn’t help but think that the Israelis starting college at an older age and having been in the Israeli military having probably seen things they could never forget, would give them a different perspective and enhanced appreciation for their education. I also was grateful that in the U.S., risking their lives was not a required rite of passage into adulthood for our kids.

Lisa Armony

Lisa Armony

Lisa Armony, Executive Director of the Rose Project for the Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County and former Orange County Hillel Director is very familiar with all of these issues. She’s talked to students with broad viewpoints of Israel from those who believe Israel is irrelevant to their lives, to those who are overwhelmed by how it is portrayed as what seems like the most abhorrent bully of the world. She said it’s very important to have discussions with our students as to how the subject of Israel makes them feel. The portrayal of Israel on campus can feel very divisive, and some may choose to ignore it out of self-preservation while others may want to get involved and into the thick of things.

As I listened to these leaders I realized how rich our Orange County environment is in providing educational opportunities. If you have a high school student looking at colleges, please be sure that they get signed up for the Knowledge for College series starting in January. Knowledge for College is also available throughout the U.S.

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

 

 

 

 

 

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