New Arts Initiatives Counter Trending Anti-Israel Rhetoric on College Campuses
A recent study by the AMCHA Initiative released in July offered a disturbing and eye-opening insight into anti-Zionism on US college campuses. The study noted that while incidents of classic antisemitic harassment on campus have declined by nearly half in the years 2018-2019, anti-Zionist incidents increased by 60% in the same time frame.
Less than a century ago, genocide was committed against the Jewish people under the banner of racial inferiority, with Jews labeled as being non-“white.” Today, Jewish students contend with campaigns by antisemitic faculty members, student organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and fellow students alleging that Zionists are inherently racist white supremacists.
The racial categorization of Jews appears to be flexible to the needs of the particular hate group seeking to threaten them. Antisemitic faculty and students call for “canceling” Jewish students and allies of Israel from higher education — a racist action itself. According to the same AMCHA report, acts involving the public shaming, vilifying, or defaming of students or staff because of their perceived association with Israel increased by 67% in 2019. There was also a 51% increase in acts involving the unfair treatment or exclusion of students because of their perceived association with Israel. Now more than ever, it is imperative that those of us in the Jewish communal world support college students as they explore and create connections with both the Jewish community and with Israel — without compromising to appease bullies.
In a traditional year, student organizations like IACT, Masa Israel Journey, and CAMERA on Campus promote Israel and engage students on campus at educational tables in the campus center — and by hosting events in person. However, due to COVID-19, this is anything but a traditional year. Efforts to combat the rise in anti-Israel sentiment on campus today are significantly limited by rules restricting face-to-face events. Yet, as reported by AMCHA, anti-Zionist advocacy has adapted on campuses, with antisemitic Zoom-bombing, continued campus BDS campaigns in virtual spaces, and antisemitic rhetoric and images appearing both online and in person.
In anticipation of the limits to traditional Hillel campus programming, two people — including myself — who are former Northeastern Hillel professionals independently launched arts initiatives that connect students with Israeli culture and diversity.
My organization, Returning the Sparks, approached the Consulate General of Israel to New England and Northeastern Hillel this spring about collaborating to create an Israeli Art Lending Library (IALL). For about the cost of a cup of coffee, a Northeastern community member can now rent a professionally-framed work of art by an Israeli artist for the school year and learn more about Israel in the process.
The art itself showcases the diversity of Israeli society, including prints, photographs, and original pieces from Israeli artists of different religions, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities. As a student browses the collection to select their artwork, they have the opportunity to learn about the artists, view artists’ statements, explore related maps of Israel, and visit relevant educational links to learn more. In addition, Northeastern Hillel’s current Israel staff enhances the library’s educational value by conducting one-on-one, masked, socially distant discussions with community members.
Independently and concurrently, Jackie Barzvi, another former Northeastern Hillel staff member, opened the Mizrahi Dance Archive. In 2016, Barzvi created a belly dance class at Northeastern Hillel that educated students about Mizrahi Jews, which evolved into a student club that still functions today. The club has been popular with students of multiple religions, genders, and ethnicities, and engaged students who had never previously participated in Jewish life on campus.
Today, the Mizrachi Dance Archive offers a social distancing-compliant, virtual tool to educate communities on Mizrahi Jews. The archive presents a collaborative experience, where visitors are invited to include their families’ memories and videos centered around Mizrahi dance. Communities, including campuses, can book additional virtual learning experiences such as presentations, live demonstrations, facilitated discussions, and dance lessons.
When antisemites portray Israel as a white, European state, it erases the reality that more than half of the country’s population comes from families that have lived in the Middle East for millennia.
Both the Israeli Art Lending Library and the Mizrahi Dance Archive are models for innovative Israel education that can be helpful in fighting antisemitism on many campuses. The truth and beauty of Israel’s diversity can be shared with communities through the dance, music, photographs, collages, paintings, and drawings of her people.
Arinne Braverman is the founding executive director of Returning the Sparks, a non-profit organization that creates opportunities to transform Jews’ connections with Judaism, with Israel, and with one another.