At the University of Minnesota, like many other universities, the worst-kept secret of Jewish and Israel-related campus life is that most Jewish students either don’t know or don’t care a whole lot about politics.
Take this past summer, for example, as Jews and Israel became embroiled in nearly every major national controversy.
President Trump regularly attacked the four progressive congresswomen of color known as “the squad” (Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and, most importantly for us, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota) for supposedly hating America and being anti-Israel. Then, fanning his own flames, Trump said that Jews who vote for Democrats (about 75 percent of American Jews) have a “total lack of knowledge” or “great disloyalty” to other Jews and Israel.
Israel’s barring of Tlaib and Omar from visiting and leading a “Congressional Delegation to Palestine,” and the ensuing outcry, also did no wonders for American Jews politically. Many Minnesotan Jewish leaders had encouraged Omar, a regular critic of Israel, to “go and see” Israel for herself, and were left embarrassed and frustrated with Israel’s decision. Pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, having pleaded with Israel not to bar Tlaib and Omar, felt similarly sidelined.
In many ways this summer was a disaster for Jewish PR (if such a thing exists). But here in Minnesota, at a university in Omar’s district, a new semester brought fresh waves of Jewish students who, for the most part, either didn’t know what had happened, or didn’t care by virtue of not knowing.
Classes, Greek life, whether to be in a Jewish a cappella group or not — there was a lot to talk about with reunited friends, just not Ilhan Omar, Jewish loyalty, or Israel and Trump.
Only I was bringing up the summer’s controversies, trying and failing to find students who could say how these PR disasters affected campus Jewish life, and hoping for an interesting story to write. Surely the summer had changed something … right?
But students, from members of Minnesota Hillel’s student board to someone who had covered an Omar-Tlaib press conference for a local Jewish paper, couldn’t tell me anything. For some, their Hillel affiliations meant not stepping out of line to comment for press. Most just didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to speak on the subject.
Now, I could have let groups like J Street, If Not Now, Students Supporting Israel and the rest of the politically aware alphabet soup of Israel groups have their say about this past summer. It may have even made an OK article. But it wouldn’t have been at all representative of the world that most Jewish students live in, outside of the conversations of a small elite group of students and members of the Jewish community.
To be honest, the obliviousness of the campus bubble was a relief to find; a welcome escape from the exhausting reality of Jews being used to score points by politicians.
But the obliviousness of students is also concerning. While ignorance is bliss, I don’t believe that Jews on campuses have the luxury, particularly in today’s political climate, of being unaware of our controversial and public place on the national stage. We should be engaged and informed, not just through passionate core groups, but en masse as a significant population of the Jewish world and campus life.
So, how should the Jewish community be working to engage and inform more Jewish students? Of course, this is one of the big questions keeping Jewish professionals up at night.
And I don’t necessarily have an answer. An older friend of mine, having graduated from college four years ago, once called me up to talk about Israeli politics and mentioned that while he didn’t care about politics in college, now that he was older and had spent some time traveling in Australia, he was much more aware of what was going on in the world.
After that conversation, I’ve regularly wondered whether Jewish students’ obliviousness is something that naturally fades with time, and if forcing political awareness — in the middle of college stress, social life, and debt — is a futile effort.
Maybe it is. But if I had to suggest any new ideas to inform students, it would be this: Currently, when Hillel and Chabad centers on college campuses get the emails and contact information of Jewish students, they start sending all kinds of emails, from monthly newsletters to announcements and event promotions.
Well, what if they partnered with Jewish news sources (say, The Jewish Week or the student-run New Voices Magazine) to produce a simple Jewish student-tailored weekly newsletter that would lay out the basics of what was going on with Jews in the world and on campuses?
A newsletter that Hillels and Chabads could easily print and leave on Shabbat tables, or at the front desk, or in student lounge spaces, and send in emails to the many Jewish students that show up at least once during the year.
A newsletter might not reach all students at all times, depending on course load, exams, or even during the summer when many students work at summer camps, but it just might be able to reach some (or most) of the students some (or most) of the time.
To be clear, this idea doesn’t push for more Jewish students to be politically active, whether it be on Israel-related issues, or otherwise in the Jewish community.
But the real problem with Jewish students being disengaged, based on nearly every conversation I’ve had with Jewish and Israel professionals, is not that they’re not involved. It’s that they don’t know enough.
The perennial uphill battle is educating Jewish students who may not have learned much about Jewish life or Israel before reaching campus.
Once they’re educated, being involved becomes a very different question.
Lev Gringauz, a former Jewish Week editorial intern, is a junior at the University of Minnesota.