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March 24, 2014 12:07 am

For European Jewish Students, Anti-Israel Vibes All Around (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Saskia Pantell, Global Campus Initiative Coordinator. Photo: EUJS.Org.

As colleges around the United States face a growing tide of anti-Israel sentiment, the director of a new campus advocacy group based in Europe warned that for Jewish and Zionist students on the continent, the sense of isolation can be all encompassing.

“In Europe, it’s very common to not have this centralized campus structure so you feel the anti-Israel vibes all around,” Saskia Pantell, coordinator of the Global Campus Initiative (GCI), told The Algemeiner in a recent interview.

The Initiative, launched in April of last year, is a joint project of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) and the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS). The group aims to counteract threats from the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and similar attempts to “delegitimize” Israel in educational environments.

Pantell, raised Jewish herself, explained just how challenging it can be for pro-Israel campus activists in European countries.

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Among other factors that must be considered is that of security. Even waving an Israeli flag is “not safe” in some countries and “you have to have security, you have to have police, you have to have all of this for your protection,” she said.

The GCI aims for a “bottoms-up approach” in its work with students, Pantell said. Representatives talk with student leaders and national Jewish student unions to hear about the specific challenges each is faced with. The group works to ensure college students feel safe as Jews by assisting in the development of pro-Israel campaigns, funding unions, and offering basic tools and information on how to counter de-legitimization and BDS on university campuses, among other efforts.

Describing what a student might encounter, Pantell said, “We have students going to the local food store where all the students live and there’s a boycott sticker by the Yaffa oranges and they carved in swastikas to the oranges.”

“In some places, BDS’ concept is very well-known, it’s very strong,” she said. “Students feel it just walking down the halls. You’ll see BDS posters calling for the boycott of Israel and so on. In other places, they don’t have that issue at all.”

In Norway, she said, things are pretty bad. In that country “number one, you’re not safe as a Jew, just walking around with any Jewish symbols.”

“And second, (anti-Israel sentiment) is on two levels: it’s from the university and also from other students at the university. The university in Oslo offers exchange not to Israel, but to Palestine. It’s the small things but they also mean a lot if you are very few [and] there are extremely few Jewish students there. They’re trying to build up a union now,” she said, adding that some Norwegian Jews now live in hiding.

“[The GCI] really gives them the feeling that somebody cares about them. Number two, we help them organize. If they need money to just print posters, this is something where we can step in.”

Even with membership at pro-Israel unions available on some campuses, many students in Norway are scared to join them because they “don’t want to be found” as being Jewish, Pantell said.

The 29-year-old said she faced “extreme anti-Semitism” growing up in Sweden, once experiencing a rock attack. Even recently, she has heard locals call out “Heil Hitler” and said the climate in the country is not favorable for Jews.

“If you have [a] hate crime and you report it, it usually doesn’t go to court. It doesn’t become a legit case,” she said. “The Jewish community has been encouraging people to actually report anything anti-Semitic just to get the statistics right and even when people do that… you don’t really have trust in the justice system… I do feel that it’s not taken serious enough, the situation with Jews.”

The GCI was twice involved in Swedish demonstrations aimed at highlighting anti-Semitism. While Swedish media and the few pro-Israel politicians in the country were invited to speak at the rallies, the events weren’t covered by any Swedish media outlets, Pantell said.

“I don’t know the statistics but for sure it’s really denial of Jews being in a situation from a higher level,” she said. “Imagine then being a student in this environment, it can be very difficult.”

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