Five years ago, the Northern California campus where I now serve as an Israeli emissary experienced arguably its most infamous antisemitic moment.
On Nov. 17, 2015, a Jewish member of the UC Santa Cruz student government was warned to abstain from voting on a pro-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) resolution because he was the president of the university’s Jewish Student Union and was “elected with a Jewish agenda.” The episode echoed other high-profile antisemitic incidents at California campuses in the same year, including UCLA student Rachel Beyda being asked if her Jewishness was a “conflict of interest” when she applied to be a member of the student judicial board, and Stanford University student senate candidate Molly Horwitz’s Jewish background being called into question.
While antisemitism and anti-Zionism remain serious problems on campuses in California and nationwide, today’s environment at UCSC presents a different kind of challenge for the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
In my experience as Santa Cruz Hillel’s Jewish Agency Israel Fellow — one of the Israeli young adults who travel for one to three years to university campuses with the goal of empowering student leadership and creating Israel-engaged campuses — I’ve witnessed more of a chilling effect around Israel-related issues. Any mention of the Jewish state elicits a typical reaction of, “I’d rather not talk about it.”
The student government here passed the pro-BDS resolution five years ago in conjunction with the aforementioned antisemitic comments directed at the Jewish student. The current student government and campus administration aren’t aware of those events. UCSC’s chapter of the anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine, meanwhile, fizzled out after its leader transferred to another school. That said, antisemitism hasn’t disappeared at UCSC. The past five years have seen incidents including spray-painted swastikas, SJP’s disruption of an Israel Independence Day celebration and other forms of harassment against Jewish and pro-Israel students.
Alongside the declining intensity of anti-Israel activism on this campus, the passion behind the pro-Israel environment also began to fade. Without an all-consuming crisis or ongoing threat requiring a forceful response, I’ve embraced a new task: building connections to Israel on campus in so-called “good times” or, more accurately, a time of relative passivity surrounding Israel. In a sense, the passivity presents a greater challenge than an aggressive anti-Israel environment because it’s more difficult to recruit students for pro-Israel activities when they’re essentially unengaged.
Now in my second year as an Israel Fellow, I’ve sought to help rebuild the activities of a group of Israeli and pro-Israel UCSC students who remain afraid to advocate for Israel. In that way, this campus is still feeling the aftershocks of the November 2015 antisemitic incident. Our re-emerging pro-Israel group has focused on one-on-one engagement, such as coffee meetings and learning about Israel in small-group settings.
For the broader campus community, I’ve worked to raise awareness about Israel’s social movements to offer students an alternative to their existing stereotypes about the country. People commonly associate Israel with conflict, food and the Tel Aviv beach without knowing, for instance, how the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel has a similar story to the African American population in the U.S. — especially in regard to this year’s wave of racial tensions and anti-racism protests. The same goes for the LGBTQ communities in both the U.S. and Israel. Being gay myself, this has helped me in my efforts to establish a relationship with queer and LGBTQ groups on campus. These are Israel-related narratives that deeply resonate with the issues that already stoke the passions of American college students; UCSC students have expressed a desire to hear more about these issues from different Israeli speakers.
The Covid-19 pandemic presents another new challenge — many do call it a crisis — as social distancing has put large-scale events on hold. But a silver lining of these times is that pro-Israel campus professionals have the opportunity to create greater engagement with students who are currently lacking a sense of community while so many social elements of the college experience are diminished. Such students are much more actively looking to connect with me. We’ve organized a mix of online programs and safe in-person events, from virtual learning cohorts to outdoor Shabbat dinners.
Finally, the pro-Israel movement on our campus has found strength in numbers by collaborating with students from other campuses in the area, including for joint lectures on topics such as life in Israel and America, higher education issues, Jewish holidays, Israel’s social movements, Israeli music, media coverage of Israel and more.
Even amid the risk of disconnection during this Covid-19 era, I can see the characteristics of a vibrant pro-Israel community beginning to flourish. It’s my sincerest hope that this community endures far beyond my time on campus.