For most Jewish Agency Israel Fellows working as Israeli emissaries on college campuses across North America, the 2022 school year began without incident. However, at a handful of schools, it got off to a highly concerning start.
Many students were greeted with anti-Semitic messages almost on arrival, and these alarming incidents will stick with them long after they leave the halls of academia.
Young men from the white supremacist group the Proud Boys brandished signs on a bridge at University of California Davis in late August, proclaiming that the “Holocaust is an anti-white lie” and “communism is Jewish.”
A few weeks later, across the country at Cornell University, an image portraying the Star of David as equal to the Nazi swastika was chalked on a campus sidewalk.
At Rutgers University, a Jewish fraternity house was egged during Rosh Hashanah, only a few months after it was also egged during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony last April.
At the University of Michigan, anti-Semitic flyers were put up across campus by the white supremacist group the Goyim Defense League. The flyers accused Jews of being responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
And at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, students encountered graffiti claiming that Jews commit genocide and have blood on their hands.
What do these events say about Jewish students’ safety and well-being on campuses across North America? Is this the new normal?
Dialogue surrounding the legitimacy of Israel’s policies is valid. But that is not what is occurring here.
As the Jewish Agency for Israel’s program director for the Israel Fellows, a collaborative initiative with Hillel International, I am increasingly concerned about these anti-Semitic incidents—many of which most students do not even bother to report. The unreported incidents are arguably the ones that affect Jewish life, Jewish pride and Jewish students’ safety the most, because they are not addressed. According to Hillel International’s Israel Action Program report, there were 227 anti-Semitic incidents on campus last year, in addition to over 300 anti-Israel incidents.
Moreover, an Institute for National Security Studies paper published last year noted that the overall trend on many college campuses is the framing of Jewish students “as imperialists, racists and even Nazis and white supremacists.”
Rabbi Esther Reed, the interim executive director at Rutgers Hillel, recently testified before a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on anti-Semitism and shared the experience of her student Adina, who told Reed, “Every day I am stressed about going to school. Every single morning, I need to think about things while getting ready for school. Am I dressed too Jewish? Do I look too Jewish? Does my shirt have too much Hebrew on it? I can’t wear something if it says Israel on it. It has become a habit that as I leave the parking lot deck, I check to make sure my [Star of David] necklace is inside my shirt.”
Against the backdrop of the rising tide of anti-Semitism on campus, Jewish Agency Israel Fellows are working in Hillel centers at more than 75 schools across the continent with students on an individual level. They also engage in strategic partnerships with groups on campus, national organizations and various Hillel initiatives in order to respond to anti-Semitism or anti-Israel activity on campus. This mobilizes students and empowers them with the education that helps them respond effectively when triggering events occur.
For students, this process provides a model for how to be proudly Jewish without fear and act as a sounding board for fellow students in distress. Then, they know how to connect with their peers and mobilize them to participate in the response to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents. These pro-Israel student leaders are the ones who can listen and smile when a student shares how they overcame anti-Semitism on campus.
Israel Fellows not only organize educational activities that help students understand more about Israel and its diversity, but also encourage Jewish and pro-Israel students to embrace their heritage, connect to the only Jewish state in the world and make their voices heard.
When incidents like the ones described above occur, the Israel Fellows’ response is immediate. These emissaries are already on the ground, acting as de facto air traffic controllers. They coordinate with other Jewish groups on campus to streamline nuanced and effective messaging that reaches non-Jewish and Jewish students alike, as well as faculty and administrators.
Of course, the Israel Fellows program is hardly the only initiative working to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus. But these efforts largely flow through the Israel Fellows. On any campus where they operate, Israel Fellows function as the fulcrum for organizing pro-Israel student activism. Ultimately, substantive change only occurs when students are supported by the Jewish world in their quest to mobilize and pressure their campus administrations.
At Duke University, Israel Fellow Reuven Remez led a training seminar on anti-Semitism for 50 members of the student government that was based on Hillel International’s “Understanding Anti-Semitism on Campus” curriculum. Many attendees reported that they were unaware of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and now possess the tools to recognize and combat it when it occurs on campus. Moreover, Duke’s student government unanimously voted to adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, which recognizes and outlines anti-Zionism’s multifaceted role in Jew-hatred.
Between far-right rhetoric seeping into student life and far-left sentiment disguised as social justice, many Jews on campus are unsettled, dismayed and in fear. No student should have to think twice about wearing a Star of David around their neck, going on Birthright, taking part in a Passover seder at Hillel or speaking openly about their support for Israel. In this highly challenging environment, Israel Fellows work to ensure that every Jewish and pro-Israel student feels safe.
The Jewish Agency’s Israel Fellows are there to help students keep their heads up, be unapologetically Jewish, have the confidence to overcome fear and fight anti-Semitism and discrimination. They are the driving force behind Jewish leadership on campus, bringing students, groups and partnering organizations together.
With the new Jewish (and academic) year still in its early stages, I am hopeful that our work will help bring about the day when anti-Semitic incidents are truly an anomaly rather than the new normal.
Nati Szczupak is the Director of the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program at Hillel International.