Interesting article about Jewish student activism on American University campuses

Tiffs at the family table

By Lily Galili

Source: Ha'aretz - Friday, January 04, 2002

The 700 members of Hillel (The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) who

participated last month in the General Assembly of the United Jewish

Communities (UJC) in Washington, D.C. wore on their lapels a

blue-and-white button bearing the slogan: "Israel. We're family." That 


very moving - even if there was a time when the slogan denoting the

relationship between Israel and American Jewry was "We are one." Today 


family is an extended one - and it has its problems.

The number of students who came to the GA in Washington this year from 


over the U.S. was the largest ever. They were swallowed up in the sea 


VIPs from the Jewish establishment, but it was clear to everyone that

these students constitute the special task force that now has a mission 


great political importance. The goal: fighting Arab and Muslim activity 


U.S. college campuses.

September 11 created a new situation in the relationship between the 


and Israel, and the Jews have an important role in this relationship. 


the superficial level, the American administration has given almost

unlimited support to Israeli policies. What could be more heartwarming 


the Jews of America than the president lighting Hanukkah candles in the

White House?  And what could make the Jews of New York prouder than an

outgoing mayor (Rudolph Giuliani) and an incoming mayor (Michael

Bloomberg) demonstrating their identification with Israel at the site 

of a

terrorist attack in Jerusalem?

The expression that has become widespread in America after the 


attack, "Now we understand how the Israelis live," is sweet music to 


ears of most American Jews. The harmony between the two countries is,

after all, an important component of their existence. But beneath the

surface, there are other streams. The atmosphere on campuses all over

America is a prominent example of this underlying complexity.

Same balance of power

Even before September 11, the Jews of America, mainly those who are

committed to Israel, followed with increasing concern the considerable

success of Arab-Palestinian propaganda on campuses all over America. 


before the attack on the World Trade Center, Hillel heard of the 


of Arab and Muslim organizations to set up symbolic "roadblocks" on the

campuses, in order to illustrate to the student body the humiliation

suffered by the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The attack on 


WTC led to the cancellation of the roadblock campaign, but did not 


change the balance of power on campuses such as Berkeley, Michigan,

Columbia and many others.

Liberal campuses like these are a problem not only for Israel, but for

U.S. policy in general. According to internal surveys in the U.S.,

students still support American policy, but even now, the campuses are

enclaves from which dissonant sounds emerge that spoil the patriotic

harmony. These are the places where they are asking tough questions 


the nature of the American response; this is the arena in which an

increasing interest in Islam is being expressed. Books, lecturers and

lectures on Islamic subjects are very popular. Some consider this

phenomenon a natural response, a matter of "Know thine enemy." Some 


fear that some of those who are showing interest will not stop at

intellectual curiosity, but will be captivated by the exotic attraction 


the idea, with the result that the delicate balance on the campuses 


be even further upset.

Some of what is happening on the campuses is considered a natural

generational issue. This generation of students grew up on the Vietnam 


in the movies, and on the humiliating American retreat from Somalia on

television, and from these two sources, they learned that war and force

are not always the solution.

"They absorbed the opposition to Vietnam from their parents, and now 


are confused," says Georgia Pollack, a public relations person for the

liberal Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, not far from New York 


The first reaction of the student body at this campus, one of whose

students lost his father in the attack on the WTC, was the 


of a coalition against unjust reprisals, already in the afternoon hours 


September 11. Even Jewish students joined the coalition.

"I ask myself why that was the first reaction here," says Pollack, who

converted to Judaism when she married. "The college authorities allowed

them, of course, to do what they wanted, but I'll tell you something in 


unofficial capacity: I don't understand why there isn't enough of a 


voice on campuses, in general. I did a small study of my own among 


organizations, and the only answer I received was that there is a

tremendous range of opinions among the Jews, and there isn't actually a

uniform `Jewish position,' as opposed to the Arab position. If I were 


Israeli, I would invest all my money and effort in Jewish education for

America's young [Jewish] people."

The starting point for the educational process is not encouraging, 


from the point of view of established American Jewry, nor from that of

official Israel. About 400,000 Jewish students are studying today at

colleges and universities all over the U.S.; about 20,000 of them, only

about 5 percent, have any connection to the Jewish community; about 


of these are considered the young leaders of Hillel.

"This last year of the intifada was hard for me on campus," says Tzahi

Rosenberg of Wayne State University in Michigan, whose parents left 


about eight years ago. "I walked around campus surrounded by shouts of

`PLO forever' as though inside a shell, even with a sense of fear."

Stuart Jacobs of the University of Michigan says that the immediate

reaction on his campus disturbed him very much. "I was angry at

expressions like: `We have to be careful not to discriminate against 


Arab community.' One of the problems is that as opposed to a united

Arab-Muslim community, there isn't really a Jewish community. There are 


lot of individuals with a sense of identification, but they don't 


into one community."

Michal Berdugo, who was also participating in the GA for the first 


says that at her small university, there are about 400 Jews (in a 


body of about 2,000), but only about 20-30 of them come to Jewish 


of any kind. After September 11, the question of Israel's blame for the

terrorist attack was brought up for discussion in many classes. "There 


many harsh statements against the Jewish students," she says; "A friend 


mine was the only Jew in her class when they spoke in this way, and it

wasn't easy for her. Her professor didn't exactly jump to her 


Some of the students who were attending the large Jewish convention for

the first time define what happened on September 11 as a "wake-up call"

that demands an end to complacency, and points up the need to organize

private feelings of identification into a community that speaks with 


voice. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] and AIPAC

[the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - the U.S. pro-Israel 


are now hastening to give Israeli public relations materials to the 


students who received emergency appointments as Israeli delegates on 


campuses. "There are students who want to help Israel, but don't know

how," says Robert Lichtman, vice president of Hillel, "but there are 


many students who are not even sure that they want to do so."

Within this complex situation lies the basic question of the link 


American Jews and Israel. Some consider Israel an asset, others 


it a burden, but there are also many who simply do not consider the 


state relevant in defining their identity. That is the case with 


Weinberg, a social worker and a third-generation New Yorker. Weinberg, 


is in her thirties, has never visited Israel and feels no great wish to 


so. "The State of Israel is definitely not part of how I define my

identity," she says.  "In the home where I grew up there were no 


of organized Judaism, and Israel did not exist. The Jewish state does 


define my identity as a Jew; the Jewish people - yes, and most of them 


here, in America."

But even the many who feel like Weinberg find it difficult to escape 


symbiosis between Israel and American Jews that is sometimes forced on

them by their surroundings, which consider all the Jews one big tribe.

They are asked to explain Israel and to defend it, sometimes against 


will. "In all the years when I was growing up, Israel was a unifying

factor for the Jews of America," says Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a 


at the Harvard Law School, who is involved in Israel's affairs. "Today,

Israel is in many cases a divisive factor. The anti-Semites simply love

[Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon, because he supplies them with an 


One of the incidents that illustrates the delicate seam-line between 


attitude towards the State of Israel and the situation of American 


took place right in front of Dershowitz's house. A short time after the

attack on the WTC, a group of three Episcopalian bishops in Boston 


a large group of Palestinians in an anti-Israel demonstration in front 


the Israeli consulate in the city. The slogans were directed against

Israel's policy in the territories, the flags were Palestinian. The 


community, which has felt particularly vulnerable during recent months,

protested against what it saw as an anti-Semitic demonstration.

"That's a stupid reaction," says Prof. Michael Walzer of the Institute 


Advanced Study at Princeton University, author of the book "Just and

Unjust Wars" (Princeton: Basic Books, 1977), in a dismissive reaction 


this interpretation. "But it certainly was a wicked demonstration. 


is a type of reaction to the September terror attack by the religious

left, which turns Al-Qaida into a promoter of the political agenda of

these organizations.  But that is not anti-Semitism."

Dershowitz does see an anti-Semitic dimension to this demonstration, 


he places part of the blame on Israel. "Failures of Israeli public

relations are endangering American Jews," he states in his assertive

style. "I have a hard time understanding how Jews, who are supposed to 


great experts in all areas of communications, are so bad at PR. How is 


that not one Hanan Ashrawi [a well-known Palestinian spokeswoman] has 


produced by Israel? On the other hand, the friends of the Jews in the

academic world are simply remaining silent. The least courageous people 


earth are tenured professors." He laughingly says that he exploits his

tenure for negative purposes every day.

On the political left, Dr. Bernard Avishai, who writes often on Israeli

issues, claims that it is not PR, but Israel's policy, that is 


American Jews. "Most American Jews have never considered the settlement

project and Israeli-style Orthodoxy an expression of themselves. They 


accepted them passively. In my opinion, this attitude is about to

disappear. When America is fighting Islamic fundamentalism and is

demanding that it internalize the democratic ethos into its religious

world, the Jews can no longer say: `We are allowed to have our 


The events of September 11 have only brought the issue to a head. On 


one hand, terror in America temporarily made it easier to explain that 


occupation is a necessary evil stemming from Palestinian terror; on the

other hand, when the Jews, like other Americans, now look around at 


is incompatible with America's democratic values, they see the 


movement, which they will have a hard time defending."

Inseparable entities

There appears to be an open contradiction between the approach of

Dershowitz, who considers the weakness of Israeli PR a danger to the

world's Jews, and that of Avishai, who considers Israel's policy a 


to the Jews of the U.S.  But on a deeper level, both share a view that

sees the State of Israel and the Jews of America as two almost 


entities in a symbiotic relationship.

This is how things looked in an exhibition on the subject of Jewish

identity that opened at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for

Jewish History in Manhattan, about six weeks after the attack on the 


In a large oil painting in the entrance, a Nazi soldier is seen 


the arm of a skeleton wrapped in a tallit [Jewish prayer shawl]. In

another corner of the room there was a display: Under the front pages 


newspapers documenting the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, stood a plant

containing soil from the Land of Israel and a large spoon. The defiant

caption read: "Clinton's peace plan - the President invites you to take

some of the Holy Land." From the display at the exhibition designed to

document Jewish identity through art, one could conclude that the

Holocaust and Israel are still the principal components in defining 


identity in America. This description stands in sharp contradiction to

studies showing the weakening of the link to Israel among younger 


Jews. This gap can be explained by the gap between the depth of 


felt by "disaffected" Jews and the depth of the connection to Israel of

"committed" American Jews.

The findings of surveys conducted after September 11 indicate a general

increase in the strengthening of the link with Israel, and a further 


to the right among American Jews. A survey conducted after the attack 


the WTC by Prof. Steven Cohen, a sociologist from Hebrew University in

Jerusalem, for the American Jewish weekly Forward, painted an 


picture: 48 percent of American Jews reported that they feel "much more

connected" to their American identity; only 17 percent of those polled

reported that they felt "much more connected to their Jewish identity." 


little over half defined their attitude towards Israel as "somewhat

connected." About 60 percent of American Jews reported that they see 


two components of their identity as being in "great harmony."

But this harmony may now be disturbed. The overwhelming majority of

American Jews summarily reject the possibility of the development of a

conflict of interest between America and Israel, to the point where 


will have to decide to which side their loyalty belongs. "At my college 


used to argue about the question of which side we would be on if Israel

and America were to fight one another," recalls Neil Rubin, editor of a

Jewish newspaper in Baltimore. "My answer was, and remains, that in 


for such a situation to develop, something so monumental has to go 


in one of the countries, that it will be obvious on which side I will 


These college conversations, which are reminiscent of discussions in an

Israel Scout troop, have now been replaced with fear of a conflict of

values between the two countries. Together with the wave of patriotism

that characterizes America during the present struggle, one can begin 


hear voices that are testing the limits of right and wrong even in the

situation of a just war.  This discourse is an inseparable part of the

great American ethos, and it will not remain within the confines of an

internal discussion. Its significance for Israel, especially after

September 11, could be: Terror is in fact very bad, and it justifies a

determined struggle, backed by support; but occupation and settlements 


a moral evil. Opposition to the settlements has always been America's

political position, but now America, including the Jews, is also 


in terms of morality.

For years, American Jews have been confused in their attitude towards 


political process in Israel, Even those among them (about 50 percent) 


support the dovish position, have felt that they were prevented from

expressing their opinion, because they have no moral right to talk 


this issue.  Now this feeling may change. Moreover, American Jews who 


been making a special effort during recent months to demonstrate their

part in the American ethos, may be pushed into making a decision.

"September 11 is definitely not only good news for Ariel Sharon," says

Prof. Steven Cohen, who researches American Jewry. "What concerns 


Jews even more than a critical attitude towards Israel is the 


that America will withdraw from its involvement in the 


conflict, and return to its isolationist tendencies after completing 


it is doing now."

Even before the long-term consequences of September 11 have become 


one phenomenon in the complex relationship between Israel and American

Jews stands out: the disappearance of the guilt factor. The loaded

dialogue between Israelis and American Jews was always accompanied by a

hidden subtext of "You give money and support, but we give blood; you 


there in peace, and we live here with terror." September 11, as a

collective American experience, has erased this guilt factor. "I

personally never felt guilty, but I see this change, too," says an

American Jewish intellectual. "It's a change for the better, of course.

Maybe now we can conduct a more honest dialogue with Israel."


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