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March 11, 2019 12:00 pm

At Wake Forest University, Jewish Students Unite to Defend Their Rights

avatar by Phillip Yurchenko

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Students gather at Wake Forest University on Feb. 27, 2018. Photo: Students Supporting Israel.

The famed Jewish sage Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I was painfully reminded of those words this week as I grappled with antisemitism on my campus, Wake Forest University.

During the Palestinian Rights Awareness Week, organized by the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), an “apartheid wall” and exhibit were erected with slanderous and antisemitic messages. One section denied the link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, while another featured the quote “resistance is not terrorism.” The accusations went as far as claiming that Israel practices “ethnic cleansing” and “colonialism.”

Fortunately, we learned about YDSA’s event three weeks ahead of time. Our campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) sprang into action, ready to speak out against the delegitimization of Israel on our campus. But we met resistance along the way.

As SSI worked to unite the Jewish community on campus, I sought the guidance of professionals, since our campus Hillel is student run. I reached out to the director of the Jewish Life Office, Dr. Gail Bretan and Hillel International, but my concerns fell on deaf ears. The only advice we received was to lay low throughout the week and not attract too much attention.

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Earlier this year, we spearheaded efforts to bring about the Wake Forest student government’s passage of a resolution that recognizes that some criticisms of Israel “can be antisemitic dog-whistles,” and opposes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.” Yet this month, amid preparations for Palestinian Rights Awareness Week, I was told by Dr. Bretan that the very reason antisemitism exists at Wake Forest is the student resolution condemning antisemitism. Imagine my utter disbelief.

Through SSI and the on-campus Hillel chapter, passionate pro-Israel students banded together.

We decided to take matters into our own hands and reach out to YDSA about Palestinian Rights Awareness Week. They assured us their events would promote Palestinian culture, not antisemitism, even when it came to a panel on “antisemitism versus anti-Zionism.” We offered to provide a panel speaker who would represent Jewish students. They claimed it was too late to process our request.

Fast forward to the evening of the panel.

About 45 of us, mostly students and also community members, gathered right before the event. We talked about the rules of Student Conduct to not interrupt, to be cordial. Those of us who made signs knew that we could only be in the back. Some of us used masking tape to cover our mouths, to demonstrate to the speakers that we were being silenced.

As the panel began, we heard misinformation and exaggerations directed not only at Israel, but at us, at me. We were chastised by our own professors for creating a hostile atmosphere on campus, all because we objected to their lies about our homeland. Professor Michaelle Browers went as far as to claim that the Wake Forest Student Government “got swindled” into passing a resolution that adopted a mainstream definition of antisemitism, the very definition that is used by our own State Department and 30 other countries. Professor Barry Tranchtenberg added his opinion, claiming that Jews are white and that stating that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel is “appropriation … and an attempt to erase the presence of the Palestinian people”.

These professors bemoaned the lack of conversations, when in fact, it was they who refused to have an open dialogue with anyone who disagreed with their assertions. The most disturbing moments of the whole evening for me should have been when a fellow student accused me of being a white supremacist, while I was wearing my very visible kippah on my head; or when another student physically laid his hand on me, in an attempt to intimidate me.

We aimed to create an environment of inclusivity and dialogue, and instead, we were actively excluded from a panel about an issue that affects us as Jewish students on a daily basis.

I’m no stranger to challenging environments for the pro-Israel and Jewish communities. When I was applying to college, I was no different than other Jewish high school students, concerned about anti-Israel activity on my prospective campus. The Jewish Life Office at Wake Forest University assured me that there was no antisemitism on campus. I bought into this fairy tale. Just a few weeks into my freshman year, I realized that the idea of an absence of antisemitism stemmed from the fact that nobody dared speak about Israel.

What did I learn from Palestinian Rights Awareness Week? First, a week that was supposed to be dedicated to discussing how we can help the Palestinian people was plagued with blatant antisemitism. The organizers had no intention of actually discussing the issues that make the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the disputed territories difficult. Instead, the one and only old and tired answer they had was, “it’s the Jews!” — of course, nicely masked as “It’s the Israelis.”

Second, we need the Jewish community to support us and empower us. Our voices matter. SSI was fortunate enough to have allies on this issue like the Zionist Organization of America, Hasbara Fellowships, the North Carolina Coalition for Israel, and Voice for Israel — even as we lacked support from Hillel International and the university’s own Jewish Life Office.

Finally, laying low and keeping quiet is never the answer. We maintained open channels of communication with Wake Forest University administration and were ultimately informed by the dean of students that we would be provided with easels on which to place our own posters, which shared a message of truth and dialogue, next to the hateful panels.

We are so grateful to the community at large for not remaining silent. We know that the school received countless emails and phone calls from people across the country asking the administration to do the right thing — don’t allow this amazing institution to fail to acknowledge antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism, all under the flag of free speech. We all believe in free speech. We never asked the University to shut down the week or the panel. We merely asked to be given a voice, to be allowed to correct the lies and distortions. It’s unfortunate that this did not happen.

It’s time to proactively defend our rights as Jewish and pro-Israel students. While this week was trying, I am proud of my fellow Deacs who stood together and declared clearly and loudly that we will not be silenced. We will not tolerate antisemitism on our campus.

Let’s get invested. Let’s speak up. Let’s unabashedly defend our rights and beliefs.

Phillip Yurchenko is president of Students Supporting Israel at Wake Forest University, Israel Chair of WFU Hillel, and an alum of Club Z.

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