Who’s Behind the Israel Activism on College Campuses?

By | Aug 13, 2021
Israel, Latest
Israel on college campuses

Arguments over Israel on college campuses are not new. Every few months, stories of antisemitism and anti-Zionism at American colleges appear in Jewish and non-Jewish publications alike. From Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions to students claiming they were ostracized for their Zionist ideologies, college campuses are a focal point for the conversation about Zionism in America. Often these national stories focus on events, but skip over the students that are involved—and they have plenty to say. Moment spoke with three student activists across the political spectrum to highlight how a new generation of Jewish Americans feel about the current state of Israel. 

Alida Jacobs founded Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) at the University of California, Davis. This past year, they worked to pass a BDS resolution for their school divesting from Raytheon, Viola Environments and Caterpillar.

Why did you initially decide to become active in anti-Zionism on campus?

Going into college, I sort of knew ideologically where I stood, but there was only a J Street chapter. I’m really grateful for that basis with J Street because it gave me an insight into the workings of liberal Zionism but also of “Jewish institutional life.” 

I definitely knew that I wanted to jump ship early on. I wasn’t really comfortable with being branded as “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine.” I didn’t feel that it was beneficial to me to be in a wishy-washy centrist place on campus. I found it was politically isolating rather than beneficial. I also didn’t find that I was welcomed in Hillel. We were greeted with hostility and treated as radicals. Which is sort of laughable because J Street is very intentionally not radical.

At J Street, I wanted to do a screening of a documentary called Occupation of the American Mind. J Street staff emailed me saying you need to not do this because the director may have been involved with someone who is antisemitic. I found this so frustrating.

Since another student and I created JVP this past year, we’ve been able to accomplish so much, because the timing coincided with this most recent wave of uprisings in Palestine. I think we’re way better equipped due to the fact that we can point out the roots of racism in a way that you can’t if you’re sponsored by Sheldon Adelson.

The last few weeks of this last quarter we’ve been very focused on a BDS resolution that we actually managed to pass, which I technically authored. J Street wouldn’t have been able to back it because they’re institutionally not allowed to throw their name behind BDS; they’re just allowed to say it’s not antisemitic.

I feel like I can say exactly what needs to be said, without having to hold back, because the positions of JVP are very morally clear and strictly anti-Zionist.

What context do you see the conflict in? Do you see it as an American, as a Jew, or from an Israeli perspective?

 I see myself as a Jewish person living in America. I don’t see an American identity as central in any way to who I am. I’m very big on holding the same decolonial standards through which I see Israel to every settler-colonial state. I think it’s reactionary exceptionalism in which many leftists hold Israel. I think Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, but the occupation, settler colonialism, and the defiance of international law are also being enacted by at least half a dozen, if not more, other states. 

The left spends too much time talking about Palestine in a way that I think is irresponsible, sad and contrary to international solidarity. For example, I’m thinking of Tigre, Western Sahara, West Papua, Anatolia and Kashmir. 

How does the conflict impact your Jewish identity?

Being in opposition to Zionism strengthens my Jewish identity. It gives me a specific niche of community and identification within Judaism. If I weren’t engaged with anti-Zionism, I wouldn’t think of myself as that Jewish. It feels important to me because everyone is trying to speak for me in every direction. I’m being used to justify one of the central atrocities of America’s foreign policy.

Do you get any pushback from your family?

I’m not at odds with my family, which is pretty uncommon. They might not use the word anti-Zionism, but I think they agree with me and with everything I stand for. For most of my life my mom has taken a stance that she is too overwhelmed with how horrible what Israel is doing is, and she doesn’t say anything else. 

What are you trying to accomplish through your activism on campus?

Zionists push their agenda with certain young Zionist influencers, using talking points that warp reality and appropriate the language of progressivism. They confuse people who don’t have a clear historical and political understanding by saying things like “Zionism is decolonization.”

One thing that was really valuable in my experience with J Street is the emphasis on talking. Their whole approach was having conversations and bridging the gap, except without equipping you with a comprehensive historical basis to even have those conversations, so you’re just talking about how you feel. It doesn’t matter how you feel about ethnic cleansing happening; it matters that you try to do something. 

We’re going to push to make our BDS resolution actually binding. So many people in our opposition clearly didn’t even read the BDS bill. The bill didn’t target Israel proper. The companies are uncontroversially horrible. It makes no sense to oppose that if you’re a normal person.

Are you hopeful that some sort of peace is possible?

Yes, the way I see it is that decolonization has to happen first before there’s any peace. I think “peace” is a loaded word because it implies returning to an intolerable status quo. 

What I would say needs to happen before there’s anything like peace is reparations for Palestinians, the total end of the occupation, freedom of movement, absolutely protected equal rights, the end to the Jewish nation-state law and a right of return for all Palestinian refugees. I think a certain number of Israelis will leave when they’re no longer able to live in a state where they have sovereignty, and that’s fine in my view. A lot of Israelis will be happy to live in complete equality with legal protection. In my opinion, peace can only happen if those things are achieved.

People hear that, and they have a knee-jerk reaction of “you’re advocating for the genocide of Jews,” which is so stupid because it’s been clarified a million times that’s not what anyone who is part of any big organization is saying. 

Cora Galpern is part of J Street at the University of Michigan.

How did you decide to become involved in Israel/Palestine activism?

My involvement tangentially started when I was in middle school. I had been learning about Israel in Hebrew school, and I felt like something was missing. I picked up a book that was probably written for sixth or seventh graders, and it was meant to be a historical overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book exposed me to information that was not included in my Sunday school programming. 

I would ask questions and criticize things that I thought were wrong but didn’t even know much about in Jewish spaces like the Jewish club in high school and BBYO. I was surprised to see how much pushback I got just for questioning before I was even making any type of assertion. I was just asking for information, and that was not acceptable. 

From there, I realized that something was wrong because if I’m not allowed to ask questions, especially in Jewish spaces, which I feel are always emphasizing the importance of criticism, questioning and deep thinking, then there’s got to be something going on here. When I got to college, I wanted to find a progressive community of Jewish students. 

How does the conflict affect your Jewish identity? 

I think it can be very alienating. When I’m predominantly around other J Street U students, I feel accepted, and my Judaism is at the forefront of this activism. In more mainstream spaces, it can often feel like I’m not a good enough Jew because I do critique Israel.

Do you get pushback, either for working for a Zionist cause or for questioning Israel? 

I don’t identify with the word Zionist. It is intrinsically linked with colonialism, oppression and occupation. I support a lot of things that anti-Zionists support. I also understand that for a lot of people, the word Zionism means Jewish self-determination. The reason I can’t claim that definition of the word is because politically, it doesn’t operate that way right now.

We struggle a lot because our members have varying beliefs on what Zionism means to them. Some identify as anti-Zionist, others identify as progressive Zionists, while others don’t identify with the word at all. We represent all of those people under our organization. We are also under Hillel, which is a proud Zionist organization. So we struggle because we feel like we have to legitimize our Judaism in our respect for the existence of a safe space for Jewish people in Jewish spaces. 

What are you trying to accomplish through your activism?

I don’t think that my activism is doing all that much to tangibly change things on the ground. I think that the role that American Jews, particularly college students, play in the conflict is impacting the conversation that the diaspora is having. I think that ultimately change has to come from the people who are living there, and it has to be led by Palestinian voices. It has to be also accompanied by true Israeli allies. I think that the work that we do on college campuses in America is one part of a much larger puzzle.

Is your view on the conflict in any way colored by activism happening in America? 

I think that the more I learned and the more activated I got on this issue, the clearer it is to me how connected the Palestinian struggle is with so many other global struggles. There are eerily disgusting parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement in America and the Palestinian Liberation Movement. The way that narratives are shifted to treat reform as revolution is seen in both narratives. Understanding those connections motivates me on all fronts to continue to do not only this work but also work against racism in America and abroad.

Do you think peace is possible?

Not right now. I think that any attempt to come up with some sort of solution to the peace plan, division of land or even a confederation at this point would be harmful because the conditions on the ground are not there yet. If annexation and home demolitions stop, and if laws that are apartheid-like are repealed, then it would be possible to talk about some sort of solution. Right now, the most important thing is harm mitigation, elevating Palestinian voices and fighting against continued annexation. 

Jack Elbaum attends George Washington University and is on the board of directors of The New Zionist Congress.

What made you want to join this organization?

The New Zionist Congress is a very new organization that only cropped up in the last couple of months. I was involved with it from near the beginning. I knew that it was something that I wanted to be involved with just because I saw that more and more people were buying into anti-Zionist ideologies on campus. I thought about getting involved with an organization, not necessarily on campus but trying to have a wider impact on the Jewish community in general, which is partly what New Zionist Congress is trying to do. 

Do you feel like your activism is going to have any impact in Israel?

I’m not necessarily sure how much it would impact anything going on in Israel. However, the truth is that as long as the United States has interests, not only in Israel but in the wider Middle East, then it actually matters how people in America view Israel and the conflict. 

I see more and more people taking the opposing side, turning against Israel and embracing anti-Zionism. I care about Israel actually maintaining itself as a country. The United States has a large influence there, so I would not understand why the fight about Israel would not matter in the United States.

How did you first get involved in Zionist activism? 

I saw certain attacks being levied on Israel in response to the Great March of Return which was happening in Gaza in about 2018. I saw a lot of lies being spread saying that they were indiscriminately shooting people in a crowd of about 40,000. As evidence, they gave the fact that about 60 people died at one of these given protests. Analyses after the fact showed that upwards of 90 percent were actually terrorist operatives. I saw these lies being lobbed at Israel, and I thought I could get into the space to combat some of what I saw as falsehoods being levied against Israel. 

Do you see the conflict as an American, as a Jew, or from an Israeli perspective?

I absolutely look at it both as an American and a Jew. First, on the American side, the reason I stand up for Israel is that at its core, Israel shares the liberal Democratic values that America holds, meaning that they believe in equality under the law, democracy and human rights. They exemplify these beliefs not only in their rhetoric but in their actions as well. To see the attacks being levied at them, just as if these attacks are being levied at any other Western-style liberal democracy, I would be standing up for that country. 

On the Jewish front, for most of Jewish history, Jews have lived as a minority in various countries where their rights and their lives were dependent on the majority not deciding that they wanted to either expel or exterminate the Jews. What Israel represents is a departure from that by saying that we’re not going to leave our safety up to a possible vile volatile majority. Rather, we are going to have a Jewish state where we can protect ourselves. And I think that is extraordinarily powerful.

Have you experienced antisemitism personally? 

I’ve heard the personal experiences of plenty of other young Jewish college students. There’s the entire Instagram account Jewish on Campus that tells the specific stories that Jewish students from across the country submit about antisemitic incidences.

 I personally have not experienced that. I think that there are two reasons, the first being that I only just finished my freshman year, and the entire year was completely online. The other is the political spaces that I am a part of. I lean right-wing. In college Democrat groups, Zionism is a third rail issue, but there’s near-unanimous consensus on the issue in college Republican groups. 

I will say that on Twitter I recently faced a barrage of antisemitism from the far right when I wrote an article about the white nationalist leader Nick Fuentes. He tweeted about my article and ended up getting about 700 antisemitic comments coming from the far right. 

Is your view on the conflict in any way colored by activism happening in America? 

I would not say that other right-wing groups are necessarily influencing my ideas about Zionism. I take pride in being an independent thinker. If you consider yourself someone on the left, now it’s not that you only have to buy into economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice. You also have to believe that Israel is an apartheid state and that we need the dissolution of Israel. Otherwise, you’re not actually a good progressive. 

Do you think peace is possible?

I would love to think that peace is possible. I really hope that at some point, a viable two-state solution can actually happen. There need to be two states for two peoples: a Jewish majority Israel and an Arab majority Palestine. In the short run, I don’t think it’s very realistic at all. The Israelis don’t have a real partner for peace; this has been the case since 1938. When the Peel Commission was proposed, they proposed the Jewish part of the land that was extraordinarily small, and the proposed Arab part of the land was extraordinarily large. Despite that, the Jews still accepted, saying we want a state, no matter how small. The Arabs rejected it, and then the same happened in 1948, 2000 and 2008. There have been numerous occasions where there have been two-state solutions on the table. Every single one of those Israel has accepted and, by doing so, implicitly recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination. In every single one of those scenarios, the Palestinian leadership rejected it, often in a violent way.

7 thoughts on “Who’s Behind the Israel Activism on College Campuses?

  1. Carol C says:

    Thank you for giving space to voices not usually heard.

  2. Richard Plotzker says:

    They are interesting perspectives mostly different from what we hear around the synagogues and more centralized Jewish organizations. A few caveats, they are only three of many and they are all young with spheres of concern far in excess of their spheres of influence. Probably too small a sample to be representative of Jews on Campus. Reminds me a little of McGovern of my campus days who had a great following but not a lot of votes. There are more significant organizational Jewish advocates with campus divisions, some like CUFI well funded but with intersectionalities and diversions from Jewish interests.
    Over thirty years, those 20-somethings will be the people who run and fund our agencies though their school achievements parlayed into professional prominence and wealth will determine that outcome more than any activism on their part as college students. Good idea, though to listen politely, avoid retorts no matter how inviting, and let kids have their time as kids, often for the first time in a diverse environment.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    Congrats to the “independent thinker”…there should be more of the same who are in favor of a homeland for the Jewish people. Initially, both Arabs and Jews lived in so called “Palestine”, named by the Romans. Like it or not, the term is, and was initially, meant to be derogatory. As historic events fell into place, fulfilling the Biblical narrative, much push-back occurred, as would be expected in light of the anti-Semitism in the middle east at the time, Muslim leaders from the area aligning with Hitler and stirring up the world to see the Jews in an unfavorable light (for wanting a homeland where they could live in peace and safety.) As for the original boundaries given to the Israelis by God Himself…He was the first Landlord of Eretz Yisrael, they were far more expansive than present day. Incidentally, God never directed a separate land allocation within Israel’s boundaries for the Arab half-brothers and sisters of the Jewish people (still called Israelites) since, we can assume, He expected them to dwell somewhat nearby, though not without tension. See Genesis 17:20 & 21 and also Genesis 21:9-20. Earlier, Ishmael, the “father of the Arab nations,” is given a prophecy by an angel to Hagar, his mother. See Genesis 16:1-15. Like it or not, this is history. Believe it or not, the words still remain and the prophesies still pertain to this day. There are large and prosperous countries belonging to the Arabs…little Israel, carved up as it is, belongs to the Jews.

    1. Ted Hochstadt says:

      “Like it or not, this is history”? No, it is mythology.

  4. Davida Brown says:

    Thank you, Ted, for rebuking me on my blog entry. I can get a little lopsided sometimes. I have been reprimanded before by the One who spoke to me at the start. I am called to speak “the truth in love” and I can have a tendency to speak the truth with a little punch. Not meaning to challenge your sensibilities on this issue; however, I wouldn’t bet my eternal (yes, eternal) future on your opinion. I assume you are Jewish, and possibly on the younger side…maybe even my grandson’s age (he is 23 and finishing his chemistry degree and probably believes as you do.) The Bible doesn’t need defending…it has a proven track record. But, most importantly, God doesn’t need defending. He is YHVH…THE I AM. You might consider doing your own research on this subject, beginning with reading the Bible on your own. It helps a lot to be a truth seeker… and He loves questions. Lastly, He knows your heart, what motivates you, and even what you are thinking. Most religious leaders have a bias…based on their own religious education and background. Come to think of it , most people have a bias. Proverbs tells us: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (and wisdom); fools despise wisdom and instruction. ” (Proverbs 1:7 by Solomon the wise.) I don’t want to be a fool and I hope you don’t want to be one either. One more thing…it is HE that opens our eyes to His truth. We cannot do that! Hope all of this helps! I wish you the best.

    1. Ted Hochstadt says:

      And I wish you a Shana Tovah, Davida. I am 78 years old and have read the Bible more than once, albeit in English. I have also read the Christian Bible (King James Version), the Koran, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. To understand these classic writings and put them in context I have read James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and Bullfinch’s “Mythology.” And I am still reading, though sometimes only Wikipedia entries.

  5. Davida Brown says:

    Better late than never, Ted. You surprised me…78 beats me! This may never be read by you, but here goes anyway.
    I am hearing about all your readings…classics from around the world…religious texts. Our son, Joel, did the same, while in high school. We didn’t know about this…we thought he was a little on the slow side, educationally speaking. He was a terrifically talented Jazz musician, but no interest in achieving anything in high school. However, he was provoked by his first wife who had obtained an MBA in business and he ended up with a math degree and now teaches calculus. Life is full of surprises! However, he has no faith; only socialism. He is a really nice guy (I’m sure you are and thank you for your greeting), a peace loving person and sees religion as you do.
    In my studies (Religious studies at the University level), I encountered just about every mindset regarding “religion”, and found many confused people, people who lost their faith there, and people who were hell-bent on destroying said faith. Most people mean well. However, most people can be deceived and will be, if they are not sincere truth seekers. It matters not your age…God has a way of reaching the ones who He knows have a spark left in them for Himself: “A bruised reed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.” (Isaiah 42:3) My father, a former hymn composer (Julliard trained), left his faith after his time in the “great war” and only returned at the age a of 92. What was the catalyst the Lord used? The movie, Yentl, changed his life. While there is breath, there is hope! I was, as he was, a spiritual rebel; however, the God of Israel had plans for me that He pushed through and now I am His.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.