Challenges, Opportunity Await Jews On Campus


Half a million Jewish students are now in their early weeks of the new school year on college and university campuses in North America, having brought with them varying degrees of awareness about the unprecedented challenges to Jewish commitment and identity that await them there. If you are one of these students, be assured that the campus remains a site of incredible opportunity and growth for Jewish students in 2017, as it does for all others.

None of us should allow legitimate concerns about resurgent anti-Semitism (graphically on view in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago), continuing anti-Israel activism or the shrill demands for “intersectionality,” to blunt our appreciation for the enormous benefits that university classrooms, activities and relationships hold in store for Jewish minds and spirits. Recognizing the factors that make some colleges and universities difficult places for Jewish students to be these days — and no less difficult places for Judaism — can help us all deal with those challenges and take full advantage of what campus life offers.

The image of college life that many Americans are carrying into the new academic year is, sadly, that of neo-Nazis, guns and torches in hand, marching past the stately buildings of the University of Virginia. That picture runs counter to the values and the track record of American universities in opening doors to opportunity and ideas. Set foot on most college campuses today and you are immediately struck by the diversity of the student body. Open the course catalog, and you encounter fields of study and areas of knowledge that did not exist several years ago. The university at its best challenges students and faculty alike to rethink or expand their notions of what is true and right, and does so in part through discussion and debate both vigorous and respectful. Judaism has long thrived on precisely that sort of disagreement, one reason that Jews have benefited enormously from the welcome accorded by the American university to diversity and difference.

But that is not the tenor of the times this fall — and not only because of the events in Charlottesville. Suspicion attaches in many quarters to notions of fact, truth and Right with a capital R; on campus and off, loud voices argue that since there is no chance of persuading those who disagree with you, there is no point talking to them. Better to spend time strengthening your side’s defenses for whatever battle the day brings. Identity politics of the left and the right has a long history, especially on campus — and it has not been good for Jews or for the claims of Judaism. We have been a small minority for most of our history, and therefore have never had the luxury of scorning the existence and importance of facts and truth, on which Jews have depended for protection. Judaism’s commitment to time-honored notions of right, law and justice has long sustained us, body and soul. 

A Jew on campus in 2017 more likely than not will encounter private avowals or public proclamations that Zionism is colonialist oppression, pure and simple, and that Judaism, in America at least, is a rationale for white privilege. I do not fear that BDS and allied organizations will succeed in convincing significant numbers of students that these things are true. Most students are too smart for that, too aware of the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and too respectful of the role Jews play in the diverse society and culture of America. Students will continue to think for themselves — a very good thing.   

I do fear, however, that the constant assault of anti-Israel propaganda, laced increasingly with anti-Semitism, will cause some Jewish students to keep their heads down, or — worse — to lose justifiable pride in what the Jewish people have done in and for the world over the years and continues to accomplish today. Students with little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history and little or no connection to any Jewish group are especially vulnerable to this attack on Jewish self-respect. I fear that some Jewish activists will retreat from Jewish commitments in the face of intolerant “intersectionalist” arguments that they cannot participate in progressive causes so long as they remain true to Israel or to Judaism.

‘Identity politics of the left and the right has a long history, especially on campus — and it has not been good for Jews or for the claims of Judaism.’

I worry that — unsure of their footing in the vast reaches of the Jewish library of learning — some Jewish young people will entertain the notion that their tradition might actually be racist, intolerant and exclusivist, or worse, as critics of Judaism claim, rather than the force for justice, liberation and human dignity that it has often been, and remains today.

The work of Hillel and other Jewish groups on campus has never been more important — as a site of learning and friendship, as a space where doubts and differences can be aired safely, without fear of repercussions or exclusion, and as a home where one can explore on one’s own terms the Jewish tradition that is marginal to, or seemingly at odds with, the assumptions about the world that rein in classrooms, labs and campus politics. The marginal status of Judaism can itself make life difficult for some Jewish students. It may rob them of the comfort and guidance Judaism and the Jewish community might otherwise have provided as they confront the apprehensions about what lies ahead that are particularly acute during the student years and magnified by the collective anxiety gripping much of the world this year. 

All the more reason to connect Jewish students with one another and make sure they can draw upon the fund of resilience stored up in Jewish history and the reservoir of wisdom held out to each of us by Jewish tradition. The Torah portions read in synagogue during these weeks leading up to the New Year urge us to choose life, good and blessing —and assure us that human beings, singly and together, have the wherewithal to do so.

May our students and their families — all of us — choose wisely in the coming year.