What’s really happening on American college campuses today

by Brian on January 4, 2020

in In the News,The Old Country

“Get out.” That was the provocative headline of a 2019 article by Liel Leibovitz that appeared in Tablet Magazine. Leibovitz was responding to the increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students on American university campuses, especially those who are pro-Israel.

Citing examples of what he called “active discrimination against Jewish students” at Williams College (where the student-run College Council denied the request of a new pro-Israel student group to be recognized) and NYU (where the anti-Zionist Students for Justice in Palestine won the school’s prestigious Presidential Service Award), Leibovitz argues that “even the finest American universities [have evolved] into hotbeds of dogmatic identity politics” which makes them “increasingly inhospitable to Jews and to Jewishness.”

Leibovitz concludes: “If you’re a young Jew who is thinking about tagging your parents with the bill for a famous college or university, don’t bother.” 

Leibovitz makes a compelling case, but the truth is, I have no direct insight into what’s really happening on American campuses today. 

So, I turned to someone who might know more: another Liel – last name Zahavi-Asa – who worked as the director of Jewish life and Israel engagement for Rutgers Hillel from 2015 until last year when she returned to Israel where she grew up.

I’ve followed Zahavi-Asa’s journey literally since she was born: her parents were in Berkeley when my wife, Jody, and I lived there too. We made aliyah a few years before they did and have stayed good friends.

Zahavi-Asa says, based on her experience organizing Jewish and pro-Israel events on campus, that Leibovitz’s prescription would be nothing short of disaster. 

“If all the Jewish students pulled out, those campuses would become even bigger centers of anti-Israel sentiment than what they’re already starting to become,” she says. 

You could say the same thing about Israel and the Middle East, she adds, “that it’s not worth investing money if there’s a chance you could get killed. But sometimes you have to stand on your own two feet and fight for what you believe in.” 

Zahavi-Asa does have a beef, however, with the way many Jewish and Israeli organizations go about that fighting. She is especially critical of groups that “parachute” into a campus and start screaming from a soapbox. 

“Students don’t want to be yelled at,” she says. Moreover, these external organizations “aren’t working in tandem with the staff on campus. They don’t know the campus climate about Israel. They’re only around for one or two days. And so they often end up doing more harm than good.”

What should Israel advocacy groups do instead? “Work with the Hillel staff,” she says. Or the local Chabad rabbis or Israel Fellows. “We’re on campus 24/7. We are the ones that have to deal with everything that happens, the good and the bad.”

Zahavi-Asa points to the Maccabee Task Force as an organization that works closely with Jewish student leaders and staff. Created in 2015, the organization has funded more than 1,600 pro-Israel events and is active on 80 campuses in the U.S. and Canada. While the Task Force is not shy about providing suggestions for activities, ultimately, they let their local campus partners decide what to do with the funding they give, Zahavi-Asa says.

Jewish support for Israel on campus is malleable and changes over time, Zahavi-Asa adds. Students fresh out of Zionist Jewish day schools, or who are returning from a gap year in Israel, come to college ready to fight. “They immediately join or start an Israel club. But by their junior or senior years, a switch takes place.” 

It’s not that they become less passionate about Israel. “But they are exposed to aspects about world history they might not have studied in their Jewish day schools,” Zahavi-Asa notes. “They also meet immigrants from many other places. They start to see that not everything revolves around Israel. Israel becomes a piece of a bigger puzzle.”

This nuanced view may turn out to be the best result of the college experience – and the reason Leibovitz’s admonishment to “get out” is so ill-advised in the eyes of the other Liel. Sticking around allows mature Jewish students to build their own intersectional groups. 

“They can develop greater authenticity in their pro-Israel activism,” Zahavi-Asa says. “It’s a more effective way of creating ‘allyship’ than the pro-Israel advocacy groups which push students into battle mode.” 

Visiting Israel can help. But not via the standard Birthright trip. A better approach, Zahavi-Asa says, are mixed groups of Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders. 

“These groups go to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but they also go to the West Bank,” she explains. “They get a realistic idea of what Israel is about by exploring it together. They may still disagree, but it creates the opportunity for a more honest discourse.” 

“A trip to Israel is an extraordinarily effective tool to get critics to pay attention to Israel long enough to understand that the narrative they’ve been fed just isn’t true,” says David Brog, the executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, which sponsors these types of trips. “Even a bad trip to Israel is effective because the gap between the myths and the reality is so very wide.”

Zahavi-Asa is now back in Israel where she works for the post-Birthright “Onward Israel” program as well as gap-year provider Aardvark Israel. She is also taking the Israeli tour guide course “to better explain to others what the Jewish connection is to this land,” she says.

Her tenure making Israel’s case on American Jewish campuses is clearly not over.

I first wrote about Liel Zahavi-Asa in The Jerusalem Post.

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