Pro-Israel students continue to face challanges on campus

Pro-Israel students continue to face challanges on campus

A recent Israel on Campus Coalition report showed that pro-Israel events outnumbered anti-Israel events on campus last year by 3 to 1.
Photo by Toby Tabachnick
A recent Israel on Campus Coalition report showed that pro-Israel events outnumbered anti-Israel events on campus last year by 3 to 1. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

Pro-Israel organizations are anticipating a challenging year on college campuses nationwide as anti-Israel activists continue their effort to delegitimize the Jewish state, albeit through an apparent shift in strategy.

While the number of campus BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) resolutions are decreasing overall, colleges and universities are seeing increased disruptions of Israel-related events. Anti-Israel activists, in record numbers, now seem to be focusing efforts on attempting to silence pro-Israel speakers through verbal harassment and other tactics, according to a report released earlier this month by the Israel on Campus Coalition.

“We are seeing a potential change in strategy,” explained Geri Palast, executive director of the Israel Action Network, a strategic initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I think the effort to delegitimize Israel will include more of these incidents.”

The University of Pittsburgh was the site of such a disruption last year when a man shouting obscenities disrupted a Panthers for Israel event, where Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was speaking to a crowd about the Iran nuclear deal.

After the man, who was in his early 20s, screamed at Clawson “F—ing warmonger!” the Pitt Police escorted him from the William Pitt Union without further incident.

Another incident occurred two years ago, when masked protesters wielding electronic noisemakers disrupted an event co-sponsored by a pro-Israel student group at Pitt, necessitating the intervention of campus police and culminating with the removal and citation of one protester while others fled from the scene. As a consequence, Pitt officials required security at all Panthers for Israel events during the 2015-16 school year, according to Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Hillel-Jewish University Center.

“Fortunately, there have been no further incidents,” Marcus said, adding that the administrations of local campuses have been “receptive and supportive of Jewish students’ concerns.”

Compared with other campuses across the country, where Jewish students frequently are targeted by anti-Israel groups through affronts ranging from painting swastikas on historically Jewish fraternity houses to placing fake eviction notices under their dormitory doors, things are relatively calm for Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

“In general, I have to say it’s a very OK climate,” said Brian Burke, president of Panthers for Israel and education chair of the Hillel-JUC board. “It’s not like in some places where pro-Israel students are uncomfortable walking through campus.”

The board of Hillel recently met with Pitt officials, Burke said, noting Hillel’s “good working relationship with the school itself.”

“We’re lucky,” he said. “There are not a lot of prominent anti-Israel activities on campus.”

Nonetheless, there are times when pro-Israel students at Pitt feel uncomfortable speaking out in support of the Jewish state, most notably in the classroom.

Arielle (last name withheld upon request), now a sophomore at Pitt, took an introduction to cultural anthropology course as a freshman. The course was taught by visiting lecturer Gabby Yearwood. As part of the course, Yearwood taught a unit on the culture of suicide bombers and required his students to read “The Making of a Human Bomb” by Nasser Abufarha, a Palestinian anthropologist. In the book, Abufarha seeks to explain the “cultural logic” that underlies Palestinian “martyrdom operations [as in suicide attacks] launched against Israel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada” from 2000 to 2006, according to the publisher’s website.

The book “justified suicide bombers,” Arielle said. Yearwood “tried to justify suicide bombing by saying that the Palestinians were oppressed by the Israelis. He said it was the last resort they had to go to. He showed us propaganda films from the Palestinians and a staged documentary that showed a building destroyed by the IDF. He also showed us a propaganda map of Israel to show that it is taking over Palestinian territory.”

This was not what Arielle was expecting when she enrolled in what she thought was an anthropology survey course, she said.

“I was uncomfortable and frustrated that he didn’t look at it from another point of view,” she said.

Yearwood did not respond to a request by The Chronicle for comment.

Another Pitt student, who asked not to be identified, had a similar experience in an Arabic course with a different professor.

The Jewish student, who was contemplating a major in Middle East studies, was considering learning Arabic to fulfill a requirement of the major. She took a course with an assistant professor.

“In our first or second class, we did a map-labeling activity and what was labeled on the map as ‘Israel,’ the professor labeled as ‘Palestine.’ She kept referring to it as Palestine,” the student said. “It made me uncomfortable. I felt like she was asserting the fact that Israel had no right to exist. I’m half Israeli, and I felt extremely disempowered. And I felt like I had no leverage to do anything.”

Pitts’ administration has been very responsive, however, to complaints about inappropriate courses, according to Sara Weinstein, co-director of the Chabad House on Campus.

Last year, she said, a student saw a course offered on Pitts’ website called “Palestine: an Apartheid State.” The course was being offered by an outside group, but on university property.

The student emailed Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff, expressing his concern.

“Ten minutes after he sent the email to her, he emailed the link to a friend, who then couldn’t find the course,” Weinstein said. “It was removed within 10 minutes. Kathy Humphrey responded to the student, and copied me, and said, ‘Thank you for bringing this to my attention.’ You are talking about an administrator who really gets it.”

In terms of anti-Israel activity on campus, Weinstein said, “things are pretty quiet. I’m not wearing rosy glasses, but thank God, it’s not to the extent I hear on other campuses.”

Likewise, anti-Israel activity seems to be minimal at CMU, according to Rabbi Shlomo Silverman, director of Chabad of CMU.

“At CMU, there haven’t been anti-Israel speakers or other issues that we see,” he said, although he noted that anti-Israel activity was more pronounced on campus a couple years ago. “Things come up occasionally, and the university helps. But, basically, there have not been many issues in the last couple of years, which is a positive for us.”

Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, agreed.

“Pittsburgh, relatively speaking, is pretty tame,” he said.

“The sky isn’t falling on the vast majority of campuses in Pittsburgh and across the country,” Sayles said. “But we do see anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity. We’ve always seen those things. We’re Jews.”

Nationwide, including in Pittsburgh, Jewish and pro-Israel students are not alone when issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity surface.

“Hillel is working closely with our university partners to ensure the safety of our students on campus,” said Matthew Berger, senior adviser for strategic communications at Hillel International.

“Certainly, we’ve seen that a small number of students can play a large role in creating disruption on campus,” he said. “So it is important for the Jewish community to develop strong relationships with other groups on campus.”

Providing robust pro-Israel engagement on campus also has shown to “mitigate the effects” of anti-Israel efforts, he said.

Despite reports of Jewish students feeling threatened on campuses around the country, there is a lot of “good news” in terms of pro-Israel advocacy, said Phillip Brodsky, executive director of the David Project, which works to increase pro-Israel sentiment on campus by engaging Jewish and non-Jewish students and their communities with Israel.

Brodsky cited the recent ICC report that showed that last year pro-Israel events outnumbered anti-Israel events on campuses 3-to-1.

“At the same time,” he said, “things are extremely challenging. There has been a rise in blatant anti-Semitism on campus. Ten percent of [historically Jewish fraternity] AEPi had swastikas on them in 2014.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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