To the Editor:
Re the Opinion piece by Cheryl Halpern on student activism: I am a Jewish senior at the University of Maryland. I recently attended this year’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly conference in Baltimore, where Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky engaged in a "Historic Dialogue" surrounding the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. I published an opinion column in our campus Jewish newspaper about the discussion and its implications for my generation.
As someone who considers myself to be an activist, and who surrounds myself with a cohort of friends who are far from apathetic, it is deeply troublesome to see articles like this, expressing such a negative view of my generation.
The following is an excerpt from my column explaining my position:
“Yet, the celebration of triumph and unity was overshadowed by concern for the younger generation’s lack of understanding of the importance of this momentous occasion. Sharansky attributed this naivete to a lacking in the Jewish education system and wondered how something so significant in our people’s history does not resonate with today’s Jewish youth.
“We have been fortunate to grow up in an era of Jewish power. Jews have clout in a wide breadth of fields. … So why, I wondered, did the JFNA choose to insert this Holocaust-centric, anti-Semitism reminiscent plenary into the middle of the biggest Jewish North American conference that exists? We are strong. Why do we harp on the weaknesses of our past instead of basking in our accomplishments? It is remarkable what we have become as a people. Israel’s mere existence seems miraculous. To have emerged from the clutches of Adolf Hitler’s will to obliterate us all, stronger and more fervent than ever before — that is something to celebrate.”
Though I wouldn’t be so boastful as to speak for campuses across the country, my college experience has been enhanced by a thriving, active community at the Maryland Hillel. Our social justice programming is one of the most expansive in the country, with alternative break trips, local service opportunities, Israel activist groups to boot, and partnerships with an array of Jewish social action organizations all at our fingertips. The delegation of Maryland students that attended the GA conference was comprised of the leaders of these organizations. We were a group of some of the strongest Jewish voices on campus who care very much about issues and stand at the helm of the progressive, innovative programming our Hillel provides to enrich Jewish students’ college experiences. It is unfair to discredit these efforts and make sweeping, across-the-board statements about our generation.
Additionally, the end of the column dismissively discusses social media activist efforts. Having not grown up in the “Internet age” as we have, I understand it may be difficult for a different generation to fully understand the extent of the impact social media can have today. It’s important to understand that each generation will make its voice heard in its own way. The Arab Spring was sparked by an overwhelmingly successful social media effort. Even more recently, Israel and Hamas engaged in a Twitter war, issuing warnings back and forth with regard to the hostile rocket fire over the Gaza border.
The concluding paragraph outlines a laundry list of issues for which we could and should fight. Yet I think the opinion fails to acknowledge an important shift in the global landscape in which my Jewish generation has been raised. We have, as I asserted in my column, grown up in a time of Jewish power, where Israel is a strong, independent country protected by truly remarkable armed forces, and where Goldbergs and Schwartzes are running Wall Street and rubbing shoulders with government officials.
It seems to me there is a profound societal distinction to be considered here in defining activism in our respective generations. It is unfair to assign such a negative characterization to the next generation, in whose hands the Jewish futures lies.