Look to the students when assessing campus climate by Hayley Nagelberg

Special to NJJN
November 30, 2016

In “The challenge of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus,” Martin Raffel’s “Riff’s” column of Nov. 17, he addressed the problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on university campuses. In addition to quoting the research done by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and giving his own opinions, Raffel also quoted three adult professionals in the Jewish world. He talked to one student, who suggested that the findings of the study might be inaccurate, yet he did not get any more perspective from the point of view of a student.

I grew up in the New Jersey Jewish community. I was a student in the Solomon Schechter system from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade; through Schechter, I visited Israel and got involved with the Israel Club and Israel Advocacy Club. I was an active member of my synagogue and a leader of Hagalil, New Jersey’s USY region, where I served as the regional vice president on Israel affairs. The opportunities for me to learn about Israel were all around me, and I made use of only a handful of them. 

Today, I am a sophomore at the University of Illinois, which a survey included in in Mr. Raffel’s article said was a location high on the list for anti-Semitism. On my campus, I am an active member of the pro-Israel community, serving not only as the Hillel Israel Affairs vice president, but also as copresident of IlliniPAC — an AIPAC trained group — and as the education vice-president of Illini Students Supporting Israel.

While I might be more involved than many students, I am by no means an exception on campuses across the country. And when I read this column, I was frustrated by the acceptance of the survey with no explanation of where the basis for such research comes from and without a more complete look at the situation. 

Surveys researching anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campuses today tend to focus on a few measures: Have there been public displays of classic anti-Semitism such as swastikas found on campus, and has the BDS movement — the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement — been active in any way? While these factors may be relevant, they do not in and of themselves reflect the totality of the sentiment toward Israel on campus. They do not capture the feeling among campus Israel activists, they negate the work being done by students on the ground, and they frame the situation from the points our detractors want to focus on instead of from our own work. And certainly, articles pigeonholing students as uneducated and uniformed on the conflict do not help the situation.

In the year and a half that I have been on campus, fellow activists and I have organized and participated in dozens of pro-Israel social and educational programs, rallies, and other public displays; in-person discussion groups; and social media conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have lobbied our local congressmen and attended conferences and seminars on Israel advocacy all over the country and in Israel. In an effort to focus on positivity and coexistence on campus, last spring, when tensions were high, we helped launch an initiative to build bridges to peace on our university campus. This initiative was very successful, and our work was commended on the floor of the U.S. Congress, as well as in the local print and television media. We have been recognized for our work from multiple national organizations and have been nominated, along with many other amazing student groups, for an award from the World Union of Jewish Students.

I have learned so much from the students who have held leadership roles in Israel advocacy before me and from the staff and faculty who guide us through our work. Alongside my friends, I have helped teach a student-led and student-driven eight-week course on Israel. Together, we have helped bring student voices from the political Left and the political Right together on the topic of Israel. We have written articles for the student paper, local paper, and multiple on-line platforms discussing the conflict. We have become a resource for others when they have questions about Israel, instead of their turning to biased media sources or simply avoiding the subject. 

As students, we can accomplish a lot on our own, but we do need help from adult communities. Encourage early learning about and love for Israel at home. Be involved and informed about the realities on the ground on campuses and talk to students to see how you can help. Support those of us who are making a difference on campuses and try and prepare more students to fill our shoes when we move on. Rather than generalize about the climate on campus, listen to the voices of those on each campus, take pride in our accomplishments, and join us in our efforts.

Hayley Nagelberg of East Brunswick is a sophomore at the University of Illinois.