When Jewish students begin university studies, they are essentially entering a metaphorical battlefield where they will be forced to defend their values and integrity just for being Jewish. In many cases, this occurs regardless of whether these students support Israel and whether or not they are ideologically right or left wing.
As students who have been fighting against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on Canadian campuses for over four years, we were quite disappointed when we read Mira Sucharov’s April 6 CJN column, entitled “Keep hasbarah politics out of synagogue youth groups.”
The mischaracterization of StandWithUs and the hasbarah movement in general needs redress, as Sucharov has inaccurately portrayed the organization and the need for proper tools to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric on every campus today.
For more than a decade, anti-Israel rhetoric has flooded our Canadian campuses, immersing Jews and other pro-Israel students in an uncomfortable campus atmosphere of intimidation and toxicity. On campuses across Canada and far beyond, Jewish students are blatantly targeted for who they are.
Not only are Jewish students victimized by mock “eviction notices” slipped into their dorms, viewed with suspicion if pursuing student leadership, and exposed to anti-Semitic graffiti constantly, but random, innocent students are harassed simply walking through campus for being visibly Jewish. Calls to violence, including the infamous “punch a Zionist” tweeting incident at McGill University, as well as calls in support of the intifadah and public support for Hamas, are now acceptable, if not normalized.
‘standwithus combats misinformation about Jews and Israel, often in a human rights-based framework, not a lobbying one’
We understand why, in today’s academic climate in North America, it is so important to educate our teens and hold engaging conversations about Israel before they reach campus. Incoming university students are sure to be faced with propaganda and historical misinformation about Israel. We believe education is paramount to supporting Jewish students, and that they should know in advance what they’ll be confronted with concerning Jews and Israel when they get to university. Otherwise, most will lead a university experience that’s equivalent to being in hiding.
The hasbarah movement prepares Jewish students for such an environment by introducing students to an array of perspectives and promotion of dialogue and peace. In particular, StandWithUs, a non-partisan organization, provides students and communities with the facts, dialogue, and confidence to express their views and values on campus without fear.
As StandWithUs student leaders, we educate our peers about the social and political realities of Israel. We inform them about our homeland’s dedication to inclusion and human rights, as well as the vibrant activities of co-operation with its neighbours. We are proud to be Jewish and to support Israel on campus. It’s also important to point out that we work alongside others, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who hold views across a wide political spectrum.
StandWithUs is an educational organization. It identifies, trains, and supports pro-Israel leaders on campus to best represent our people and culture, to act as ambassadors for building bridges with other student groups, and to combat misinformation about Jews and Israel, often in a human rights-based framework, not a lobbying one.
To say that the act of hasbarah means the suspension of critical faculties, and to attribute this to StandWithUs and partner organizations, is both slanderous and false. Nothing illustrates the degree of intellectual diversity within student leaders as does “Across the Spectrum,” a program used by StandWithUs to facilitate respectful discourse on some of the most pressing issues facing Israel. StandWithUs Emerson Fellows engage in these conversations and gain exposure to a variety of viewpoints.
Judaism is based on questioning and arguing. So if teens want to discuss their feelings about Judaism and Israel, that discussion is welcomed. We would prefer these conversations be held outside campus, for example at a USY convention, rather than at a point when they are already feeling discriminated against and need the support of StandWithUs, Hillel and other campus organizations.
Unfortunately, other groups prey on these students, knowing they are facing a pressure to conform with dominant campus trends, and tell them that the only way to gain acceptance in progressive circles is to denounce Israel and Zionism as incurably evil.
The obtuse antipathy toward Israel encouraged by such organizations does nothing to foster peace on campus or the Middle East. They tell those seeking to intimidate Jewish students that it is acceptable, as long as it is done under the cloak of “social justice.”
As students who have been in the same boat, we want teens to be prepared, to feel knowledgeable – and proud – and to know that if they want to become leaders on their respective campuses, they have our support.
So to those who will be at the United Synagogue Youth conference in Chicago this coming December, swing by the StandWithUs table and say hi. We’re here to help.
Zack Gladstone, Elisa Alloul and Willem Hart are York University StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellows.