Avoiding anti-Israel campus not best strategy

Would you send your child to a college where anti-Israel protests and boycott efforts are common?

Finding a safe campus is once again a concern for many Jewish high school seniors and their parents. I can easily relate to their plight. Thirty years ago, my own parents forbade me to attend a particular Ivy League school due to well-publicized anti-Semitic incidents.

However, I now believe that trying to avoid potential threats and intimidation on campus may be a mistake for most Jewish students.

Anti-Israel attitudes are not uncommon among students and faculty at many American universities. Unfortunately, there is simply no way to avoid this unless one goes to Yeshiva University or perhaps an evangelical Christian school. However, rather than fearing confrontation, students might consider their campus experience as a potential opportunity to fulfill the first line of Hillel’s famous saying in Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:14, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Historically, college has been a place where students are encouraged to question and explore important topics relevant to their time. It may not be a coincidence that campuses that are challenging for Israel often attract the most intelligent, opinionated and passionate students. However, while discussions about Israel can be heated, they are rarely violent. If young Jews avoid schools like these and fail to engage other future leaders in meaningful discussions on Israel, what does this mean for the future of Israel — and especially the future of Jewish communal life in America?

Moreover, isn’t the American right to freedom of speech and expression a right worth fighting for? If our best and brightest students fail to use their time on campus to learn how to stand up for themselves and their community while the stakes are low, when will they get a better chance? Shouldn’t we encourage our children to learn how to work together to shrug off unwanted verbal abuse without feeling demoralized or endangered?

Former participants in the Write On for Israel program (from left) Katie Koyfman, Jane Sadetsky and Emily Mendelson at Israel in the Gardens 2012 in San Francisco

Finding one’s voice and acting for the good of a group is compatible and necessary in the development of an individual. Learning how to ignore and isolate unpleasant anti-Israel criticism also can be a valuable lesson in how to deal with challenges and setbacks that surely will arise during their adult lives.

We may not be able to silence every opponent, but we can strengthen our ability to thrive despite the persistence of adversaries.

Of course, most Jewish students do not enter college eager to engage in heated campus discussions on Israel. They may have to wait for a catalyst. In my own case, I was already 38 years old when the second intifada and 9/11 made me care. Once I connected, I eagerly volunteered my professional skills to the pro-Israel effort. Perhaps if I had traveled to Israel in high school and learned advocacy skills, my parents would have relaxed and let me apply to any school knowing that I would be able to turn potential challenges into a growth experience.

Israel is more than just history and facts. Israel can be a key to help young Jews merge with the collective memory of the Jewish people. The proper training and experiences can put young Jews on a path to a strong Jewish trajectory. Israel can be a training ground that helps teens build the confidence and resilience to stand up for any concern, passion or interest in life. Isn’t this outcome what we hope for from a college education?

Jonathan Carey is the executive director of BlueStar, whose mission is to educate the next generation of Israel advocates and leaders. He directs the Write On For Israel teen program in San Francisco and BlueStar Fellows for college students.