When Ronit Ridberg first learned of a rally to protest the loss of human life this month in the Middle East, she was eager to participate.
A senior at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Ridberg expected the rally – a march from one end of the campus to another scheduled the day after Yom Kippur – to decry violence and commemorate the losses on both sides.
But she began to feel uncomfortable when an Arab classmate looked at her with surprise and asked, “What brings you out today?”
The discomfort grew as Ridberg looked at the placards around her, some of which were “very anti-Israel” and “one-sided.”
“I was really distraught that day,” she recalled, adding, “I wanted to be active and wanted to make a statement but wasn’t sure what kind.”
The recent violence in Israel has spawned a proliferation of anti-Israel rallies on college campuses, which in turn are sparking confusion and distress among some American Jewish students.
While Jews and Arabs at some campuses have been able to maintain better relations throughout the escalation of violence, the situation at others has been more confrontational. In the past two weeks, these incidents have occurred at U.S. universities:
Yelling slogans like “You’re killing us!” and “Israel is a fascist state!” 200 Arab students protested at a University of Michigan Hillel teach-in on the peace process.
At Concordia University in Montreal, Arab demonstrators burned Israeli flags and held up placards signifying that a Jewish star is equivalent to a swastika. Students walking into the main building there confront video images of Palestinian children being killed.
Anti-Zionist Chasidic Jews joined Arab protesters at a demonstration at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where some of the placards called for the “liquidation” of the Jewish state, according to the local Hillel director.
Exhibits displayed in the student union of Detroit’s Wayne State University say Israelis are “the murderers of innocents,” “U.S. taxes to massacre Palestinians must stop,” “It is our Aksa not their Temple” and “Zionism is Racism.”
Plans for a joint Jewish-Muslim community service day were postponed indefinitely after some Jewish and Arab students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign yelled epithets at each other during what had initially been planned as a peaceful demonstration. Others on both sides have tried unsuccessfully to draft a statement of shared principles.
The surge of anti-Israel activism on campus has been a rude awakening for many Jewish students
“These students have never been through this before,” said Rabbi Bruce Bromberg Seltzer, assistant director of Duke’s Freeman Center for Jewish Life. “They were in junior high and elementary school when the intifada and Gulf War were going on, and they’re not used to Israel being perceived so negatively.”
In addition, the Jewish students tend to be more ambivalent about the situation – and often less emotionally connected to it – than their Muslim and Arab counterparts, many of whom still have relatives in the Middle East.
“There are a lot of first-generation, very angry Palestinians here and a lot of fourth-generation American Jews who are not as well-versed,” said Rabbi Richard Kirschen, assistant director of the University of Michigan Hillel. While most American Jews have little contact with Palestinians, for Jewish students, “your roommate might be Palestinian,” said Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Avi Fineberg, co-president of the Concordia Hillel, says he and the 30 or so other Jewish students on campus are now feeling somewhat besieged by the anti- Israel climate there. What is most difficult for them, he said, is that they had been friendly with many of their Palestinian classmates before.
“I speak to people on campus who say that person is in my class, I’m friends with them and now I see them marching,” said Fineberg. “How am I supposed to relate to these people in class?”
Jewish students are uniting to draft letters to the editor of their school newspapers and participating in larger communitywide Israel solidarity rallies. But for the most part there appears to be a reluctance to stage counterdemonstrations criticizing the Palestinian side or schedule dialogues with their Arab counterparts.
Many Jewish students say they and the Arab students are simply experiencing different realities. As Concordia’s Fineberg puts it, “I’m dealing with a certain set of facts and they’re dealing with a certain set of facts.”
The biggest problem, said Ridberg, is “the facts are confusing and depending on who I got information from I could’ve been swayed either way.”
For Kirschen, the possibility of Jewish-Arab discussion on his campus is hindered by the fact that the Arab students there tend to be hard-line.
“The sad thing is I don’t hear from their side that they want peace or dialogue,” he said.
On some campuses, relations are smoother.
At Georgetown University in Washington, Arab and Jewish students co-sponsored a vigil criticizing the violence on both sides. At the University of Colorado, the Hillel president received an “eloquent e-mail from the Muslim Student Association” requesting they put together a joint program, said Pat Blumenthal, executive director of the Hillel Council of Colorado.
The students there have brought in an expert in conflict resolution to facilitate a dialogue that will avoid discussing the current situation but instead focus on “why is this land so important for people of different faiths,” Blumenthal said.
And while the rally at Duke left many Jews there disappointed, Seltzer and the campus imam, or Muslim cleric, are in close contact. When the imam and Muslim leaders on campus learned of the Jews’ concerns about the rally – initially scheduled to last all week – they decided to cancel the remaining days.
“The fact that they canceled the rally is a good sign that they’re responsive,” Ridberg said. “It is still a working-together environment.”