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June 9, 2021 12:57 pm
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They Want to Silence Jews and Israel; It Won’t Work

avatar by Yael Lerman

Opinion

The gated entrance to the University of Chicago’s main quadrangle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Rdsmith4

In my 15 years of working as a civil rights lawyer, I have never seen a wave of requests for legal help like I am experiencing now. At the organization where I work, StandWithUs, we have seen a 300 percent increase in antisemitic incidents in which a victim requests legal help.

Most of these requests have been in response to attempts to silence and intimidate Jews and Zionists who are trying to speak up for the Jewish people and Israel. It’s a new and troubling trend.

As the current school semester ends, much of college and high school life is still experienced online. As a result, most student life, including student government meetings, are all via Zoom. One of the most worrisome tactics we have seen in various fora is that Jewish student voices are blocked from student government and club meetings where anti-Israel votes or discussions are occurring.

At one UC campus, Jewish student officeholders — elected for the very purpose of deliberating and voting — were barred from entering a decisive student government virtual meeting. When these students tried to enter, the host did not let them in, and the vote proceeded without them.

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At another school, when a Jewish student representative tried to weigh in against a BDS resolution, his Zoom microphone was muted. And at several schools this spring, BDS votes were purposely scheduled on Shabbat and Shavuot, when observant Jewish students were unavailable to attend. At one high school, when Jewish students tried to use the Zoom chat box to voice support for Israel, the chat feature suddenly was disabled.

Likewise, there has also been a recent proliferation of anti-Israel declarations by student governments and academic departments. In past years, these biased and factually erroneous statements were commonplace from antisemitic groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Now, however, they are being issued by school bodies that are supposed to be impartial, non-political, and of service to all students — and the leaders of these efforts are abusing their positions by emailing the entire student body using the infrastructure of the university, and also using official social media accounts.

Jewish students previously felt uneasy about how universities tolerated (and funded, through student club budgets) groups whose sole purpose was activism for the destruction of the one Jewish country on earth. Now, student governments and faculty departments themselves are releasing statements not terribly dissimilar from those of anti-Israel activist groups. How are Jewish students on campus supposed to feel?

When such incidents happen, university administrations often take days to respond — at the University of Chicago, a full 10 days — and when they do respond, the statements often appear as  ambiguous “we abhor all hate” comments, lumping a condemnation of antisemitism in with every other bigotry on earth. This leaves Jewish students feeling invisible, vulnerable, and unprotected.

Lastly, there is social media. Jews of all ages report to StandWithUs about having their online accounts targeted for removal by anti-Israel activists after posting messages supportive of Israel. These users have had to spend weeks appealing the removal of their accounts and posts; meanwhile, their voices of support for Israel are literally taken offline. As a result, some Jews, especially students, are afraid, confused, and silenced. But not all.

Some of the most inspiring students we have worked with in the last few weeks are those who have chosen to fight back and proudly declare their support for Israel. Interestingly, many are the children and grandchildren of Soviet Jews, and the descendants of refusniks. As exemplified in the words of Elina, a student at UC Riverside who wrote to her university demanding that they condemn antisemitism (a request that the administration ignored), “My family descends from Holocaust survivors. They fled the Soviet Union as refugees to escape from antisemitism. When I showed my family the ASUCR statement, they were horrified, as it reminded them of the exact antisemitism they fled in the USSR.”

All of us working in the legal field of fighting antisemitism are in disbelief at the sheer number of people seeking our help right now — and at StandWithUs, our mission is to help every single one.

Jews who thought that virulent antisemitism was a thing of the past — and are shocked to find it is more popular than ever on social media and in elite quarters of America — should take the advice of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “When a Jew anywhere is threatened, or under attack, do all in your power to come to his aid. Never pause to wonder what the world will think or say … The world may not necessarily like the fighting Jew, but the world will have to take account of him.”

Yael Lerman is the director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing free legal resources to anyone confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She can be reached at [email protected]

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