With the 2014 academic year underway, supporters of Israel are worried that this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas will provide a shot in the arm for campus proponents of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state.
Sure enough, U.C. Berkeley Middle Eastern Studies lecturer Hatem Bazian has co-organized an “international day of action on college campuses for Palestine” on Sept. 23 — the day before Rosh Hashanah begins.
Cal is one of many campuses bracing for demonstrations and disruptions.
As part of the day, Bazian also has called for a series of draconian steps universities should take against Israel, among them canceling study-abroad programs and university presidents’ visits to Israel, as well as terminating all academic cooperation between U.S. and Israeli universities.
In response, 15 Jewish organizations — including Hasbara Fellowships, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs and the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity — wrote to U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, asking him to closely monitor campus activity on Sept. 23.
Bazian’s call for “aggressive and potentially illegal actions against Israel and its campus supporters — actions that include ‘civil disobedience’ — can only exacerbate the already hostile environment for pro-Israel Jewish students,” the Sept. 2 letter read.
“Moreover,” it continued, “[Bazian] is promoting an academic boycott of Israel which calls for shutting down opportunities for students to study in Israel and severing all ties with Israeli universities and scholars — a boycott which more than 250 university presidents have called a subversion of academic freedom.”
Pro-Israel activists at U.C. Berkeley are bracing for an uptick in anti-Israel activity in the weeks ahead.
“It’s obviously a unique time for the Jewish community on campus,” said Cal student Avi Levine, who previously served as president of Tikvah, a pro-Israel campus organization. “We’re expecting tensions but nothing is different here in terms of concrete news. We’re trying to move the focus away from BDS and get Jewish students to explore what Israel means to them, what Zionism is. It’s been turned into a dirty word and we want to reclaim that.”
Trouble for Jewish college students this year got underway even before the start of classes. At an orientation event in late August, a Jewish student at Temple University in Philadelphia was punched in the face while standing near a table manned by Students for Justice in Palestine and allegedly called a “baby killer,” “Zionist pig” and “kike.” SJP condemned the action, saying its members were not involved.
“We are expecting that things can get very ugly this year on many college campuses, including some that were quiet in the past,” said Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In order to educate students and staffers about the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and hate speech, the Brandeis Center introduced a resource guide called the “Fact Sheet on the Elements of Anti-Semitic Discourse,” which is being distributed to campus officials across the country.
Despite the looming “day of action,” Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said he has encountered no “open conversation on ramping up BDS. Then again, it only takes one or two students.”
Meanwhile, he and others at Hillel have been working with U.C. Berkeley’s student senate, which passed a BDS measure last year, to draw focus away from BDS and toward issues that more directly relate to student life, such as sexual assault on campus.
Whether or not the planned Sept. 23 event sparks turmoil, Naftalin-Kelman believes students should not jump to easy conclusions.
“The Middle East is more complicated than ever, even more than before the war started,” he said. “If you add in ISIS, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority severing ties, and Egypt supposedly wanting to settle [Palestinian] refugees in Sinai, it’s a complicated situation. It’s no longer about choosing sides but about thinking about the situation more deeply.”
Meanwhile, the Israel on Campus Coalition’s Academic Network, composed of 64 professors on 54 campuses, is starting to organize private meetings with pro-Israel students.
The pro-Israel side currently is “exhibiting a tremendous amount of decorum, and we should continue that,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the ICC. But he believes the “greatest threat of fallout” from the Israel-Hamas war is the “potential of an erosion of confidence” among pro-Israel students.
StandWithUs expressed a similar sentiment. “Students need to be able to point the finger at anti-Semitism and bullying, and not accept it as commonplace,” said Roz Rothstein, the group’s Los Angeles–based CEO.
StandWithUs bases its definition of anti-Semitism or intimidation on the “three Ds”: double standards against Israel, demonization and delegitimization.
Sometimes defining hate speech isn’t easy, but often it’s crystal clear, such as “when someone calls you the ‘K’ word,” as was the case in the Temple incident, Rothstein said.