A campus affairs expert warned that anti-Israel activity is fraying the bonds between Jews and other interest groups and forcing pro-Israel students to choose between political allegiances.
Those Jewish students, many of whom are committed both to a range of social justice causes as well as to Israel, are increasingly “finding they have to cleave those identities from each other,” said Jacob Levkowicz, assistant director of campus affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
In social justice settings, he said, quoting a prominent Hillel rabbi, “Our Jewish students are having to check their Jewish identity at the door.”
Levkowicz, who was named to the new position in June, said the Israel debate is also challenging university administrators and student government leaders, who have to deal with petitions, often from Students for Justice in Palestine, to divest from Israel.
Levkowicz said that J Street U, the left-leaning campus pro-Israel group, has played a positive role in fighting the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement on campuses.
“One of the challenges we face as leaders is reaching progressive or left-wing Jewish students,” Levkowicz said. “J Street has a great deal of credibility in reaching those students. There are many resolutions on campuses, and it is often due to J Street that they are defeated.”
Despite the many BDS resolutions, Levkowicz said, “there haven’t been any universities that have taken action on BDS resolutions passed by student government, and I don’t expect them to.”
On the other hand, he added, “When you have European companies like Orange [a French telecommunications corporation] no longer doing business in Israel, it sends a pretty powerful message,” he said.
In addition to the BDS resolutions, Levkowicz cited a recent uptick in disruptions at Israel-related events or talks by Israeli academics. In November, at the University of Minnesota Law School, Israeli academic Moshe Halbertal was shouted down, while at the University of Texas at Austin, pro-Palestinian students disrupted a talk by an Israeli faculty member on Israeli military culture.
Soon after the Halbertal incident, said Levkowicz, AJC was in contact with the university president’s office and was able to help them put in place guidelines and protocols of how to deal with such situations in the future.
The AJC also provides legal counsel via its lay leaders. It supported the Israel studies department at the University of Texas, which faced a legal challenge from the protesters who disrupted their event. It also helped Lauren Rogers, a non-Jew and member of UCLA’s student government who took part in an AJC-sponsored Project Interchange trip to Israel. The SJP chapter filed a complaint alleging that her trip to Israel created a conflict of interest in a vote on divestment. She won the challenge, and then cast one of two critical votes against the divestment resolution.
He said the goal of Project Interchange is to expose campus leaders and media “to Israel in all of its complexity,” including visits to the West Bank and settlements and meeting with Palestinians. “By the end they recognized that things are complicated and not as black and white as often portrayed on campus,” he said.
AJC will also bring 110 students to its Global Forum, fully subsidized, with programming to deepen their connection to the Jewish community, their Jewish identity, and their relationships to Israel.
In the face of these challenges, Levkowicz suggested that the “alphabet soup of organizations” on campus is now far more coordinated and collaborative, and less competitive, than four years ago.
During the question-and-answer period, he addressed the potential relationship between BDS and anti-Semitism. He noted some incidents of actual anti-Semitism: for example, Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternities on California campuses reported 14 incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti.
In the end, the relationship between BDS and anti-Semitism is difficult to parse. A divestment resolution “may not be coming from an anti-Semitic place, but its effects on students can feel like anti-Semitism,” Levkowicz said. “If any single Jewish student feels threatened or can’t openly express their pro-Israel views, that is a problem.”
He also suggested a more classical anti-Semitic trope that may be separating Jewish groups from other campus organizations. “I know from a lot of Jewish student leaders and Hillel directors that Jews on campus are seen as privileged,” he said. “The Princeton CJL is a beautiful building, and a lot of students look at the building and see the Jewish community as a privileged community.”