Students, professionals prepare for campus anti-Israel activism

Amanda Boris feels nervous about what she’ll face this year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There’s an uncomfortable amount of anti-Semitism on my campus,” said Boris, an incoming senior.

Last year, a UW campus newspaper ran an ad from a notorious Holocaust denier for several weeks, despite protests from the Jewish community.

More troubling, she said, were anonymous posts that appeared under the ad, stating that the Jews “deserved it” and they “better watch themselves.” Moreover, a professor who teaches an introductory course on the Middle East makes “openly false statements about Israel,” she charged.

Boris told her story to a group of Jewish students who joined some 300 of their peers Aug. 11-15 at Washington University in St. Louis at the Hillel Institute. This is a summer training session designed to help them prepare for Jewish engagement work on campus.

A big part of that work is learning how to respond effectively to anti-Israel activities on campus. Such activity has been on the rise on North American campuses for several years.

But pro-Israel activists say last year was different. The new campaigns are better organized, more prevalent and more vitriolic.

This summer, several national Jewish organizations held training sessions to help students and staff prepare for what is expected to be an even more targeted anti-Israel campaign this coming year.

“In the Jewish community there’s a lot of fear and anxiety, and that lands on our campuses, on our students,” said Hillel President Wayne Firestone at the gathering’s plenary session Aug. 11.

“We have seen things on campus, last semester in particular, that are really ugly,” he said. “We can imagine what we’ll face when we return this fall.”

Situation in Wisconsin

Such “ugliness” occurred in Wisconsin not only on the Madison campus. On April 29, anti-Israel students disrupted an Israel Independence Day celebration at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with anti-Israel graffiti and protests; and a Muslim student punched a Jewish student at one point. (See June 2010 Chronicle.)

Heidi Rattner, director of Hillel Milwaukee, told The Chronicle in a telephone interview on Aug. 27 that she has “made it very clear to the chancellor and several vice chancellors that Jewish students want to feel safe and secure and have a sense of belonging on the UWM campus; and those feelings were threatened by the events” in April.

The university officials “assured me they wanted the same thing,” said Rattner. “I have been working all summer, meeting with seven or eight different administrators to discuss ways to make the campus more friendly for all groups, not just Jewish students.”

However, UWM is undergoing leadership transitions. Chancellor Carlos Santiago has announced he will resign his position effective Oct. 1; and some other important positions are being filled on an interim basis, like that of vice chancellor of student affairs, currently held by Jim Hill.

In such an environment, “Nobody feels they have the power to do anything,” said Rattner.

Nevertheless, concrete actions are being taken. Rattner put UWM officials in touch with Harriet Schachter McKinney, executive director of the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee.

On Aug. 23, McKinney led a training session on anti-Semitism for “about 175” UWM residence hall staff and security members. In a telephone interview Aug. 26, McKinney reported that the session was successful and that she felt “no hostility in the discussion of Israel at all.”

In addition, interim director Kathy Heilbronner  of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation met with UWM officials and expressed to them the concerns of the general Milwaukee Jewish community.

“There was an outpouring of feedback and support from the Jewish community” after the April incident, said new council director Elana Kahn-Oren on Aug. 27. “We are continuing to work with [UWM officials] to avoid any similar incidents in the future.”

Rattner and Greg Steinberger, director of the Hillel Foundation University of Wisconsin in Madison, said that the anti-Israel “Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions” campaigns showing up on campuses elsewhere in the country do not appear to be making inroads in either Milwaukee or Madison.

“I am not seeing that that is going to gain traction at UWM” and “I do not see it” at other Milwaukee-area campuses like Marquette University, said Rattner, though she acknowledged that “it is possible” such efforts could appear.

Steinberger said in a telephone interview Aug. 27 that such campaigns have “not been a big presence here [in Madison] for several years” and he does not think they are likely to gain strength, “though voices [calling for it] certainly exist on campus.”

Steinberger said it is difficult to know what is happening in this regard in campuses in other parts of the state that do not have Hillels or Jewish students.

He said that last year, a non-Jewish faculty member of an upstate campus — Steinberger couldn’t recall which — “reached out to me” because of a sign sponsoring an Israel divestment discussion; but “nothing came of it.”

One passed

As part of the “Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions” campaign, efforts to bring resolutions calling for divestment from companies doing business with Israel were noted at more than half a dozen campuses — a new tactic in the anti-Israel movement that targets student governments.

Only one of those proposed resolutions passed, in a non-binding student body vote at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

But every time such a bill is put forward, Hillel activists say, the charged atmosphere it creates leaves lasting wounds.

Asking students to act as Israel advocates along with all the other things they do at college isn’t easy, activists say.

“Our students are coming to school to learn, and now they’re expected to defend,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based international organization that describes itself as working to ensure that Israel’s side is being told on campuses and in other public spheres. “Israel is the target, but Jewish students who stand up for Israel also become the target.”

Israel advocacy is a nuanced issue, say Jewish campus professionals, and that can be divisive.

“For the average student, Israel is a problem — and they don’t want more problems,” said Michael Faber, longtime Hillel executive director at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. “It makes that leg of their Jewish identity wobbly.”

Students with varying religious and political views are being asked to stand together for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and that can bring them into conflict with other friends and other causes, activists say.

“College is emblematic of what’s happening in the general society — Israel both unites and divides the Jewish people. That’s what we’re wrestling with,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Hillel’s executive director at the University of California, Berkeley, which also faced a protracted struggle over a divestment bill last spring.

Overall, “We want the students to be prepared, not paralyzed with fear,” said Hillel president Firestone.

Coalition building is key to Israel advocacy work on campus, say those involved in leading such efforts. It shouldn’t come down to Jewish students against the rest of the campus community, they add — and as interfaith efforts increase on more and more campuses, Jewish students should find themselves less isolated.

Allison Sheren, now Hillel program director at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that things were different five years ago as divestment efforts hit her campus when she was a student.

Now she points to a “MuJew” program — a Jewish-Muslim alternative spring break option on her campus that has brought Jewish and Muslim students together on social action projects for the past three years.

“There’s a real focus on dialogue, on partnerships,” Sheren said. “When Israel issues come up, even if there are disagreements, there is discussion.”

Diana Kahn and Leon Cohen contributed to this report.