Anti-Semitism conference attracts hundreds of college students to Pittsburgh
Fighting hateIACT is empowering young Jewish leaders across the U.S.

Anti-Semitism conference attracts hundreds of college students to Pittsburgh

As anti-Israel harassment continues to increase, Jewish and pro-Israel students learn how to respond.

More than 300 college students came to Pittsburgh in 2019 to learn how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
More than 300 college students came to Pittsburgh in 2019 to learn how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Israel-related anti-Semitic harassment increased 70% on college campuses in 2018, and anti-Semitic acts singling out Jewish and pro-Israel groups for “personal vilification” more than doubled. So did anti-Semitic acts involving the unfair treatment of Jewish or pro-Israel students, including attempts to exclude them from campus activities.

The harrowing statistics, recently reported by the nonpartisan AMCHA Initiative — which documents anti-Semitic activity at universities and colleges — include a 67% increase in promoting or condoning terrorism against Israel on campuses.

While an increasingly hostile atmosphere for Jews and pro-Israel students could have the effect of dissuading them from participating in Jewish life on campus, many are instead moved to advocacy and to learn techniques to combat and reverse the trend.

IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed), a 12-year-old national initiative that began in Boston to build on the success of Birthright, and now has a presence on 30 campuses throughout the United States, including the University of Pittsburgh, is one organization that is leading the way in empowering Jewish student leaders. The group held its first “Anti-Semitism on Campus Today Student Leadership Assembly” in Pittsburgh on Nov. 24 at the Omni William Penn Hotel.

The conference was filled to capacity, with more than 300 students from all over the country attending. Another 100 students applied, but all spaces were filled.

The energy of the student leaders was palpable as they raptly listened to nationally recognized experts in combatting anti-Semitism, including keynote speaker Rachel Fish executive director of the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism, established earlier this year by Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, in response to the growing rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad. Fish described how, as a graduate student at Harvard University in the early 2000s, she uncovered and exposed the fact that the $2.5 million endowment made to the school by Sheikh Zayed, the dictatorial ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, was tainted by Zayed’s connection to anti-Semitic propaganda. Despite confronting ambivalence from university administrators, her tenacity ultimately led to Harvard suspending the funding.

Fish also described working with students at Columbia University who were faced with professors using their classroom pulpit for political purposes. In a 200-student lecture course about the conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, professor Joseph Massad publicly asked an Israeli student: “So, how many Palestinian women did you rape and kill?”

Fish charged the student advocates to aggressively take on these types of problems at their own schools.

“You just need a small group committed to pursue the truth,” she said.

Many university diversity officers “do not understand how Jews could be a vulnerable minority,” explained Fish, because they see Jews as “being ethnically white, having privilege and being powerful. They do not understand the issues you are facing on campus. You have to educate them.”

Other speakers at the conference included American historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Antisemitism Here and Now,” and Egyptian-born Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, who spoke about the insidiousness of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Arab world in which he was raised. He ultimately sought out learning the story about the Jewish people and Israel from sources outside the Arab world, and in 2010 he was jailed for his Israel studies, suspected of being a “Zionist agent,” and was held in a military detention facility where he was tortured. He received asylum in the United States in 2014.

Most of the students in attendance brought with them their own stories of being discriminated against for their Judaism or their Zionism at their universities.

“I say I am a proud queer transgender Zionist,” said Elijah Cohen-Gordon, a freshman at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “And a lot of the times, people hear ‘queer,’ and they are like ‘OK,’ and they hear ‘transgender,’ they’re like perfectly fine. But the second I say ‘Zionist,’ I start receiving anti-Semitic remarks.

“I’ve been kicked out of numerous transgender groups, particularly groups for trans-masculine individuals, and it’s a horrible feeling,” he said. “Israel is the only country in the Middle East that even has the beginnings of LGBT protections. They are more progressive than us in the military, not banning transgender people in the military. We need to look to Israel in that regard. Claiming that ‘pinkwashing’ is a thing is a horrible anti-Semitic act — saying Jews are only using queer people as a token.”

Cohen-Gordon came to conference, he said, to learn how to fight this particular brand of anti-Semitism.

“I really want to focus on anti-Semitism in queer communities because I belong in queer communities,” he said. “But the fact that I couldn’t be truly myself in these spaces was just unfathomable.”

Simon Mizrahi, a senior at the University of San Diego, said that his campus has experienced anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Zionism as well. Recently the anti-Israel group ANSWER created a stir on campus as they sought to be recognized as a university-sanctioned group. Ultimately, the university did not sanction the group.

ANSWER has a “hard time rejecting Hamas and Hezbollah,” said Mizrahi. “I’m here because of these incidents. It’s important to keep advocates informed about the modern manifestations of anti-Semitism.”

Hannah Rothbard, a sophomore at New York University, said that she has experienced anti-Semitism in the classroom.

“I’ve experienced a sense of isolation as a Jewish student,” she said, noting that some of the anti-Zionist or anti-Israel discourse seems to come from a place of ignorance.

“A lot of people tend to have opinions that they don’t have information behind,” she said. “For example, there have been student projects that may include an anti-Zionist point in their Power Point that just seem like they copied and pasted it from the internet, and no one seems fazed by it. And when I ask a question, no one wants to talk about it. This has been in seminar classes where basically the entire class is about discussion and talking about different opinions and beliefs. And when anything is mentioned about anti-Zionism I’m really the only one who wants to talk about it. No one wants to respond.”

IACT partnered with the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council in bringing the conference to Pittsburgh. Local speakers included Federation Chair Meryl Ainsman, who spoke of the massacre at the Tree of Life building last year and the imperative of building relationships with those of different faiths and ethnicities for mutual support, and Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor and a survivor of the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting here.

Pittsburgh was chosen as the location of the conference in part because it was the site of the most violent anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil in history, according to Michael Eglash, lead strategist for the national IACT initiative.

“It’s significant because it is a year after the massacre at the Tree of Life,” Eglash said. “I think Pittsburgh rings quite loudly in terms of being a special place in the conscience of Americans and in efforts to counter anti-Semitism and BDS.”

IACT has launched a social media campaign, #tellyourstorynow, “where students are not only telling and sharing their own stories and their challenges as they relate to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity, but also how they are addressing it,” noted Cheryl Aronson, vice president of IACT. “We are about promoting authentic Jewish expression and values on campus and helping create a vibrant, transformational campus life for the Jewish community on campus.”

IACT aims to provide education and empowerment to help Jewish leaders to create an atmosphere where students will not shy away from Jewish or pro-Israel expression, according to Aronson.

“We need to ensure that Jewish students are able to express themselves in the public space without being shut down, that their freedom of speech is honored and that they are able and feel comfortable holding their heads high with their own Jewish identity and with pride in the sense of our mission,” she said.  pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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