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January 4, 2018 2:52 pm

Jewish Students Around the World Report Shared Challenges on BDS, Antisemitism and Apathy

avatar by Eliana Rudee / JNS.org

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A mock Israeli checkpoint set up during a past “Israeli Apartheid Week” at the University of California, Los Angeles campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

JNS.org – They may live thousands of miles apart, but student activists from around the world identify various shared challenges living as Jews in their respective countries and campuses.

At the 44th World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) congress in Jerusalem — which took place from December 28-January 1 — 157 delegates from 36 countries gathered to connect with other passionate student leaders, and explore various facets of what it means to be a Jewish student leader today.

According to Yos Tarshish, the outgoing chairperson of WUJS, the  major issues facing Jewish college students are anti-normalization efforts against students who “have any sort of connection to Israel,” as well as the rise of far-right, neo-Nazi political parties.

Yanir Grindler, the WUJS chair at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, said that racial identity plays a “big part in the discussion on campus.” Due to South Africa’s previous history of apartheid, he said, students there “often speak of white privilege because of white guilt” — the guilt that South Africans feel for the institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination committed against black South Africans from 1948-1991.

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Grindler said that during “Israeli Apartheid Week” on the Wits campus, BDS activists have aimed to persuade students by framing their agenda as a class-based and race-based struggle, erecting a mock demonstration “where one side is soldiers, representing white, middle class South African Jews and Israel.”

“There’s the belief that if you’re not engaging in race conversation, you need to wake up,” he said. “In liberal arts universities, you have to be engaged in race politics, and it changes how people approach conflict.”

In Austria, WUJS student activists claim that the biggest challenge comes not from the left, but from the right.

He said that the Austrian Freedom Party, which is part of recently elected Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s governing coalition, is a “far-right party founded by the members of the former Nazi party,” and a “serious threat not only to Jews, but also to democracy.”

Hess voiced his concern about various new members of the Austrian government and parliamentarians, whom he described as “right-wing, antisemitic and … active in militant neo-Nazi organizations.”

To address this issue, the Austrian student leaders have built coalitions between campuses and countries, working with WUJS to issue a statement against their government. Further, they plan to put together an open letter signed by WUJS representatives “to show that Jewish students stand united against this ideology,” said Guttmann.

Nurit Becker, a student in Mexico City, told JNS that her biggest takeaway from the congress was learning that apathy within the Jewish student community is both the main challenge she finds in Mexico, and a common obstacle for students worldwide.

As the head of international relations for the Mexican WUJS delegation, Becker has made it her mission to address apathy in her country’s universities through projects that activate students to get involved with issues that face the Jewish community. She said that she also collaborates with other student leaders to “help each other and share campaigns.”

Becker said that Mexico experiences very little antisemitism, and was surprised to hear about her peers’ encounters with Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism.

“At the congress,” she said, “I learned that the life in Mexico for Jewish people is a completely different reality [from the situation in other countries].”

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