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With Campus Activism in Disarray, Students Seek Guidance on Message

November 16, 2001
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The hotbeds of student activism are in disarray.

On campuses around North America, Jewish students are attempting to find their place and stake out positions on Israel in an atmosphere that is unusually politically charged.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Israel’s image has been under attack since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, and the future of Jewish-Arab relations on North American college campuses — particularly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington — is still uncertain.

While there is no unified picture of what’s going on at campuses, the message for Jewish students at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly this week was to be proactive and not let pro-Palestinian students set the agenda.

The focus should be less on defending Israel and more on providing a pro-Israel message, according to Eric Bukstein, a student at the University of Michigan.

Jewish students should learn and strengthen their own views, agreed Richard Joel, international president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

“There is a tremendous student ignorance of Israel,” Joel said.

Joel dismissed the notion that there is widespread apathy on campuses. Students are looking for meaning, he said, and Hillels and student groups should help them find their way.

More than 700 students attended the UJC conference, joining sessions on Jewish leadership, current events and student journalism.

As students continue to grapple with understanding the political situation in Israel, it is difficult to gauge the level of support for Israel or Jewish groups on different campuses, and where public sympathy lies.

Initially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon brought increased support and sympathy for Israel, and Jewish and Muslim groups came together for interfaith dialogues.

But articles in college newspapers blaming Israel for the terrorist attacks became more frequent, and Jewish and Muslim groups struggled to keep the peace.

At Cornell University in upstate New York, there were tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and Muslim groups, according to Michelle Mason, a senior. But the student groups ultimately came together and even held a vigil, she said.

Now there is quiet and there appears to be agreement on campus about the need for tolerance, Mason said.

For Jack Zagha, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere created a climate of confusion on campus.

There were Zionist Jews arguing with pro-Palestinian Jews, and Muslim groups trying to get people to understand that they don’t condone terrorism, Zagha said.

Students from New Jersey, California and Maryland told of unease on campus and the need to revamp Israel advocacy.

The mixed picture makes it harder to find the right plan of action for students.

Bukstein, who sits on the board of directors of Michigan’s Hillel, said before Sept. 11 that the Jewish community on campus was striving to define itself by building community. After the attacks, students needed to address anti-Israel rhetoric and fight anti-Semitism, he said.

There needs to be a national coordinated effort to help students, Bukstein said.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Montreal, encouraged students to build Jewish identity on campus and not to get caught up in the “hysteria” of political arguments.

“A campus used to be an oasis of civility,” Troy said. “But I’ve seen demonizing. It’s hard to have a free exchange of ideas.”

Joel played down reports of extremism at schools.

“Campuses are not filled with hate,” Joel said. “Some have tension, some have quiet.”

But, he admitted that statements made on campus often carry more weight than if made elsewhere.

This past summer, Hillel sponsored a five-day retreat for student leaders that, for the first time in years, devoted a full day to Israel advocacy. The other days of the retreat, which hundreds attended, were devoted to leadership training and Jewish learning.

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