Fighting for Israel on College Campuses
It’s that time again.
In my office, September is one of the busiest months of the year. My students, located all around North America, are returning to college.
Almost as soon as they arrive on campus, the stories start pouring into my inbox. From UC Berkeley to Smith College, from the University of Central Florida to Arizona State, from Cornell to Tulane, my students monitor perceptions of Israel throughout their campus communities.
The news is generally mixed. Some students talk of the success and popularity of their Israel-activism groups, while others tell of fighting divestment initiatives in student government. Every campus is different, but my students share a common goal: to educate their campuses on the facts about Israel, and to fight her demonization wherever it may be found.
Fighting the “Three D’s” of anti-Israel activism on a college campus is no easy task. The opprobrium Israel and her supporters face in academic circles can be especially vicious and overwhelming, but as I tell my students, that is even more reason to stand strongly against it. Those who perpetuate lies should be opposed, and forcefully.
When I arrived at Hampshire College in the fall of 2006, I had just spent a year in Israel; I was tan, ebullient, and full of excitement for the semester ahead. It had not occurred to me that Hampshire’s name would soon become associated with some of the worst campus anti-Israel vitriol in the United States.
Hampshire, a selective, small, private liberal-arts college nestled in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, is a place where hatred of Israel was common, judged a socially-acceptable bigotry, and, in some cases, was required to be accepted in the local social hierarchy. Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (HSJP) was formed in 2006, when I was a freshman. During my first year, the group was not very active, and I took little notice.
But, then, halfway through my sophomore year, HSJP took off. The group staged an Israeli Apartheid Week, and built a mock wall on the main campus quad. They passed out propagandistic literature and accosted students on their way in and out of campus buildings, to talk about Israel’s supposed war crimes.
HSJP’s wall in front of the library could be seen from all directions, and students passed it on their way to and from class. The first time I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks in shock, disgusted at HSJP’s egregious claims. Spotting my open-mouthed incredulity, an HSJP member approached me and said, “Hi, do you know anything about the Apartheid wall that Israel is building in the Occupied Territories of Palestine?”
Disturbed at the biased nature of his question, I pointedly replied, “Yes, I do, as matter of fact. I know that it is not a wall made out of concrete. Rather, most of it is simply a chain fence. And I know that the barrier has nothing to do with Apartheid, but is about keeping Israeli citizens safe from Arab terror.” The student, with whom I had never spoken before, looked at me with a raised eyebrow, snorted, and said, “You must be pretty twisted to believe that shit.” Then he strutted away, joining other HSJPers who had heard the exchange. They actually pointed and laughed at me, drawing as much attention as possible; I was upset as I walked away.
That encounter was certainly not the last, nor the most severe, I would have with the anti-Israel faction at Hampshire, but it was the most emotionally unsettling. It was my first taste of the closed-mindedness, the hostility, and the absolute refusal to engage in honest self-criticism that characterizes HSJP, and indeed, many other SJP factions around the country. It shattered my naiveté and introduced me to the fact that a cause that claims to champion justice and peace, is really fueled by hatred, bigotry, and social conformity. It made me angry and determined to fight against the people at Hampshire who endorsed not only the persecution of Israel, but the mistreatment of their fellow students on behalf of “Palestine.”
Over the next few years, HSJP gained momentum and publicity as their behavior became increasingly incendiary. I detailed my observations of HSJP and my frustration with their nastiness in emails to members of the Hampshire faculty. I recounted some of the instances where I was bullied and called names —”racist,” “fascist,” or “crazy”— for supporting Israel. I reported how HSJP members destroyed the fliers that I posted advertising a pro-Israel rally I helped to plan, and how once, a fellow student told me that my love of Israel was helping to perpetuate genocide.
In October 2008, I attended a live screening of the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on campus. I was disgusted, though not surprised, that whenever either candidate mentioned a healthy relationship between Israel and the United States, the entire lecture hall erupted into jeering and booing. Earlier that school-year, a Jewish, Zionist friend of mine was approached in the Hampshire cafeteria by a pair of HSJPers, who, without any sort of provocation, began to loudly sing a Palestinian national song in her face. She told me that they followed her out of the dining hall, singing at her as loud as they could.
In 2009, Hampshire SJP members rose to a new level of mendacity. In February, HSJP erroneously claimed that Hampshire had become the first American college or university to divest from “the Occupation of Palestine,” and that the SJP instigated the “divestment.” The Hampshire Board of Trustees protested that the claim of divestment was incorrect, and that Hampshire’s investment portfolio continued to contain stocks from several Israeli companies. SJP still asserts that Hampshire divested its holdings in companies that “profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” In February 2010, HSJP posted fliers around the Hampshire campus proclaiming the first anniversary and subsequent celebration of “SJP’s historic victory —Hampshire’s divestment from the Occupation of Palestine.”
Throughout 2008, 2009, and 2010, HSJP participated in anti-Israel demonstrations in Pioneer Valley town centers. Sometimes they were aided by SJP branches from the other schools in the area. They also worked with community groups like the Western Mass Coalition for Palestine. At these rallies, members of these groups marched, wore keffiyehs, and chanted slogans advocating violence, like “Long live the Intifada!”
While HSJP members scream and shout into megaphones, compete with one another to express outrage, and wax poetic about injustice, their loudly proclaimed commitment to justice and the equal treatment of others is hollow. They stop short of applying those values to those in their own community who would dare to disagree with their Manichean worldview.
HSJP proved this point when they drafted a petition that called for “solidarity” with the Irvine 11—the 11 UC Irvine students who were detained for planning the disruption of Michael Oren’s 2010 lecture. Predictably, HSJP used their solidarity petition as a method of distorting the issue at hand— from one of a blatant violation of UC Irvine community norms to one of censorship and the deprivation of freedom of speech—though it was those very Irvine students who deprived Michael Oren of the right to speak freely.
To help learn how to combat anti-Israel falsehoods on campus, I decided to apply for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA)’s 2009 annual educational trip to Israel. We learned about the poisonous, hateful incitement against Israel, Jews, and the West that blankets Arab and Muslim media coverage from Europe to Pakistan. We saw the hundreds of exploded Qassam rockets that Hamas and its allies have fired at Israeli civilians with the aim of murdering as many Jews as possible. We met with Israeli journalists and policymakers who work tirelessly to forge a more peaceful world for their children.
I spent my final semesters at Hampshire researching and writing my undergraduate thesis, and trying to figure out how to transmit a strong, accurate pro-Israel point-of-view on campus. I decided to work with Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, founder of the organization Our Soldiers Speak, to bring his message to campus. Sgt. Anthony was going to speak about what life was truly like as an Israeli soldier, educate students about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and show people why Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is necessary.
Sgt. Anthony’s event became a cause around which pro- and anti-Israel groups rallied. About 300 people attended the event, including neutral Hampshire students who were seeking to learn about the subject.
During the event, HSJP and their friends disrupted Sgt. Anthony’s remarks, and stood to shout their usual falsehoods. Several times, these interruptions led to loud confrontations between them and frustrated Israel supporters. At one point, a Hampshire professor even threw his lot in with HSJP, tossing a loud, disrespectful remark at a Hampshire Assistant Dean who was trying to restore order.
Ultimately, Sgt. Anthony overcame the distractions and finished delivering his talk. And by their vociferous attempts to silence Sgt. Anthony, HSJP helped make Sgt. Anthony’s point that Israel is being marginalized and de-legitimized as a nation on college campuses.
My experience with HSJP contributed heavily to the path I chose after graduating Hampshire. I now work at CAMERA. I’m the Senior Campus Coordinator, and I’ve spent the last three years educating university students and helping them to stand up for Israel.
If HSJP strove to convert students to their way of thinking, then they did the opposite of their goal: by lying, heckling, and bullying, they not only distanced me from their cause, but made me their staunch, determined, and active enemy. Now, I spend my days equipping college students with the facts.
As a wise colleague of mine once said, “The moment you allow a falsehood to go unchallenged, you legitimize the purveyors’ ridiculous claims. You allow them to win without even having to lift a finger.” HSJP taught me this truly valuable lesson: that those of us who care about truth — about Israel — should never let them win.
Samantha Rose Mandeles is CAMERA’s Senior Campus Coordinator in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @DaughterofTsion