Monday, January 04, 2016

American Jewish college students face chilly climate 

There was an increase in anti-Israel activity on American college campuses during 2015, with over 150 explicitly anti-Israel programs, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Most were tied to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement which seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Student protesters have taken to shouting down invited Israeli guest lecturers at various campuses and disrupting other events organized by Jewish students. Anti-Israel activities to delegitimize Israel are increasingly crossing the line into anti-Semitism.

In early November, Assi Azar, an Israeli television personality and LGBT rights advocate, was interrupted during a discussion of his film "Mom, Dad, I have Something to Tell You" at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Also in November, noted Israeli philosopher and professor Moshe Halbertal's lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School was delayed 40 minutes by shouts and chants until protesters were escorted out of the lecture hall; eventually, three were arrested.

"This was not a West Bank settler, an Israeli soldier or a politician; this was a scholar, an ethicist, a writer. That is what's distressing," remarked Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. "This was not a demonstration or a rally; it was an academic lecture in a distinguished law school. That is what's so troubling."

Later that month, a confrontation occurred between members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Israel Studies professor Ami Pedahzur at an Institute for Israel Studies event at the University of Texas in Austin. The students broke up the gathering with shouts of "Free, Free Palestine" and "Long Live the Intifada," and later accused Pedahzur of Islamophobia.

Pro-Palestinian groups participating in a student protest against tuition increases at the City University of New York in November blamed the high cost of education on "Zionists."

"The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education," asserted Students for Justice in Palestine.

Pro-Israel advocates have been pointing for years to a decline of discourse on campus. Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which works to protect the speech of pro-Israel students on college campuses, has spoken of the deteriorating environment Jewish students now face.

"Universities should be oases of reason and tolerance, but they are not," he has noted. "North American campuses often harbour radical left-wing movements that are hostile to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people."

There have been several troubling incidents this year at University of California (UC) campuses.

The defacing of a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis with Nazi swastikas took place last January. A month later, several student government leaders at UCLA questioned a student's eligibility for a campus judicial panel because she is Jewish.

"She failed to pass the political litmus test that so-called progressive students see as their default position: namely, being pro-Palestinian," wrote Richard Cravatts, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

In April, even a non-political exhibit offering information about Israel was too much for demonstrators at UC Irvine. Marching out of the Cross-Cultural Centre, they chanted slogans, drowning out the music and distracting attention away from the Jewish event. 

Responding to Jewish students who contend that some UC campuses have become a hostile environment for them, in September the university regents debated the vexing issue of how to allow for free speech while protecting students against intolerance and prejudice.

Jewish organizations have urged the regents to adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that includes demonization of Israel and denial of its right to exist.

Other groups, however, have complained that the regents might go too far, repressing political debate and stifling dissent. The issue remains unresolved and the debate in California, as elsewhere, continues.

But one thing is certain: It's going to become increasingly unpleasant for Jewish students at colleges across America.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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