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U.S. Campuses Quiet About Unrest, but Jews Say They’re Concerned

February 9, 1988
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Jewish and Arab university students feel the same anguish, anger and confusion over the Palestinian riots and Israeli countermeasures being felt in the general Jewish community, students and observers say.

But that concern has not been translated into the activism or protests that were the hallmark of the previous generation of students. Indeed, American college campuses have been relatively free of demonstrations either favoring or opposing the events in Israel.

Jewish student leaders and professionals who work with them are torn between feelings of relief that Arab groups are less numerous and vocal than they have been in the past, and of chagrin that Jewish students have been unable, or unwilling, to publicly articulate their feelings about Israel.

“The overall feeling is one of great upset and confusion at what is going on,” said Joseph Kohane, acting director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“Students have a classic confusion between their commitment to Israel and its need to protect itself, and questioning whether the level of violence is necessary. Students feel a little bit trapped between those feelings.”

JEWISH STUDENTS DISCUSSING ISSUE

In response, at the University of Michigan and most of the more than 15 universities surveyed for this article, Jewish students are beginning to meet to discuss their feelings about Israel. Often Arab student leaders also are invited, but extremists on both sides are excluded.

Such a dialogue is being formed at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Ten percent of the students there — about 3,500– are Jewish, of whom some 400 are active in Jewish activities, according to Hillel director Rabbi Jay R. (sic) Davis.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘What are we to do to make the situation (for Israel) better?’ and ‘Should we talk against our own in public?” according to sophomore Aaron Becker, president of the Hillel coordinating committee at Illinois.

“The Jewish students are very confused,” agreed Orli Ronen, a non-degree student and president of the university Israeli Student Organization. “A lot of students don’t agree with the Israeli government, but they don’t have an address for their criticism.”

Students and Hillel directors at other schools also are reporting relative quiet. Sam Mendales, executive director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Council of Greater Boston, which serves the major campuses there, said, “Students are concerned up to a point, and Jewish students are going through a lot of soul searching. Arab students don’t seem to be well organized.”

In Boston, southern California and the Mid-Atlantic states, discussions or regularly scheduled lectures by Mideast experts are sponsored through Hillels and other Jewish groups.

But many campus professionals, especially those who attended college in the 1960s, are distressed that too little programming is being conducted through student initiative.

“Students are very angry, but Jewish activism is down. In the ’60s, Jews crawled out of the woodwork over things like the (unrest)” to express support of Israel, said Rabbi Norman Weitzner, Hillel director at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director at the University of California at Los Angeles, conceded he is pessimistic about student activism. In general, he said, Jewish students are shunning Jewish and Israeli cultural activities and Judaic and Middle Eastern studies, and failing to form key coalitions with other minority groups.

“I characterize the reaction (to the unrest) to be annoyingly docile. I’m not upset that the antagonists are not well organized. But Jewish indifference is very serious,” he said. “It’s upsetting that Israel is near crisis, a turning point, and most students seem to be unaware.”

Of course, perceptions of the level of activism are subjective. Dan Hacker, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Israel Action Committee there, said, “The level of activism is very high now. We’ve had at least two meetings, and over 40 people attended each.” The Israel Action Committee is sponsoring a pro-Israel rally on Feb. 10, and Hacker said he expects “a lot of screaming on both sides.”

LITTLE ARAB ACTIVITY

However Jewish involvement is viewed by Jews on campus, a consensus emerges that Arab organizers have yet to capitalize on the unrest. “Over the last few years, Arab organizations have not gotten the money they previously received from donors, and numbers are down,” said Jeffrey Ross of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

Among other reasons for their declining influence, said Ross, who directs the ADL’s Department of Campus Affairs and Higher Education, is a decrease in the numbers of militant Iranian students studying abroad and, until recently, the tendency of the Iran-Iraq war to divert attention away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also suggested that graphic news coverage of Palestinian-Israeli violence leaves Arab students little else to say.

Khalil Jahshan, a member of the board of directors of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, said he senses an increase in activity in support of the Palestinian cause.

Whether that means more campuses will begin to resemble Columbia University here, where activities are being planned on an almost daily basis, or the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where, according to Hillel director Jeremy Brochin, “things are surprisingly quiet,” most likely depends on an outside factor.

That is the Middle East peace process itself, and what effect it may have on quelling the rioting.

In the meantime, say staff members of Hillels and other organizations, including the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the University Services Department of the American Zionist Youth Foundation, Jewish students have shown a hunger for information abut the situation in Israel.

They have a “need for history,” said Stephen Schwartz, chairman of NJCRAC’s Campus Advisory Committee. “We can’t expect students born in 1968 to have any emotional feeling for the ’67 or ’73 wars. They are dealing only with the realities of what they’ve grown up with.”

(JTA New York student intern Haviva Krasner contributed to this report.)

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