National Jewish organizations and college campus leaders are preparing for the backlash they expect to face on campus over the Gaza conflict.
Becca Feldman, a member of the student board of Temple University Hillel, approached a leader of the Muslim Student Association last year about cosponsoring an event featuring Ibrahim Miairi, who performs a one-man show focusing on his identity as the son of a Palestinian Muslim father and a Jewish Israeli mother.
The leader of the Muslim organization, who Feldman did not want to name, declined the offer, but the two agreed to meet for tea sometime during this school year, which started on Monday.
Then came the recent war between Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza, and along with it, Feldman said, a flood of “staunchly anti-Israel” statements from the Muslim student over social media. And last week, a student standing near a Students for Justice in Palestine booth during a campus event allegedly hit a Jewish student and shouted anti-Semitic slurs after an argument.
But Feldman, who grew up in a Reform community in Abington and spent most of the summer with an Orthodox sister living in Israel, said she and the Muslim student leader have spoken since that assault and still plan to meet this week to “try to find some common ground and try to do some pro-peace events.”
Even before last week’s altercation at Temple, national Jewish organizations and college campus leaders already were preparing for what many forecasted to be a semester rife with anti-Israel campaigns, given the heated war between Israel and Hamas over the summer.
“I think we have to be prepared for the possibility that the propaganda war against Israel might become more intense on many of the college campuses,” Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said before the incident at Temple.
To gear up for the semester, a number of national Jewish organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and StandWithUs, held conferences training students and campus staff on how to advocate on behalf of the Jewish state, educate their peers and reach across sometimes uncomfortable lines to further understanding.
A day before Daniel Vessal was allegedly attacked at Temple, he had completed a seminar in Boston with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, where he received advice on how to correct perceived media bias and combat the anti-Israel campaign among students, said Aviva Slomich, the organization’s campus director.
“He was extremely calm and wanted to ask” Students for Justice in Palestine “about what they were presenting, and had no intention to make any kind of confrontation,” Slomich said Vessal recounted to her. “Our training is important because it builds confidence in the students, especially in this hostile environment they experience on campus.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, Hillel director Rabbi Mike Uram said he does not “paint the picture that the campus is on fire” when talking with students, parents and donors about supporting Hillel’s pro-Israel efforts. He claims that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which held its national conference at Penn in 2012, no longer has a presence on the campus.
“Our efforts shut them down,” he said. “At some campuses, it’s all bad news. At a place like Penn, it’s a lot of good news. It’s a very safe place to be pro-Israel, and that’s because there have been a lot of generous donors and a lot of talented staff and incredible students.”
Uram said this week that he planned to meet with university officials to discuss how to prevent an incident like the one at Temple, but noted that this meeting had been in the works before last week’s attack.
In addition to trying to book big name speakers, Uram said, the Penn Hillel staff is also creating a “safe spaces” program in which students from the hawkish to the dovish can talk with one another or staff.
“It’s not going to be an argument. It’s not going to be advocacy, but rather a place for them to think about how they feel. There’s a community of people to think through that with,” said Uram, who has been at the Penn Hillel for a decade.
At Temple University, the pro-Palestinian groups were relatively quiet last year, said Shai Israel, a fellow from Petah Tikvah who started working at the Hillel there in 2013. But in talking with other Israeli fellows earlier this month at the annual Hillel Institute — a training conference that 11 staff members from Philadelphia-area Hillels attended at Washington University in St. Louis — the Temple fellow said, “We all had the feeling that this first semester is not going to be easy.”
Israel said he’s also aiming to create a student-led, proactive environment rather than reacting to events like the assault last week and other incidents.
“We had things last year that we did with different groups on campus like the Temple newspaper and the LGBT community on campus,” said Israel. “We’re going to be there” before pro-Palestinian groups and “spreading bigger things on campus with the students.”
Prior to the incident at Temple, the Philadelphia-area school that had received the most national attention for its Jewish life was Swarthmore College, where last year the student board of the school’s Hillel voted to break from national guidelines and become an “Open Hillel.” That means the group no longer abides by the national organization’s guidelines, which ban speakers who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; or support boycott, divestment or sanctions against the State of Israel.
Joshua Wolfson, a junior who serves as “Israel-Palestine programming coordinator” at the Swarthmore group, said they were planning a “reflection session for the community to come together and talk” in the first weeks of school.
“Identifying ourselves as an ‘Open Hillel’ doesn’t change the way we relate to our community,” Wolfson said, noting that they were “identifying an ethos that was already there, where everyone is able to be included and feels welcome; where they don’t have to pass a political litmus test.”
Meanwhile, the Rohr Center for Jewish Life, a Chabad house serving Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, plans to offer increased programming related to Israel, including helping to organized an Anti-Defamation League workshop. But the effort is not in reaction to “anything going on with other organizations,” said Rabbi Eli Gurevitz, director of the Chabad.
Students at the three campuses “can always come across the street and be who they are,” Gurevitz said of the center, located across from Haverford. “Especially if they are supportive of Israel and feel like they don’t have a voice on campus, they should feel like there is a safe space.”
While Gurevitz was among many Jewish communal leaders who talked about the need for creating a safe environment for students — a goal that became more urgent with the incident at Temple — many also echoed Uram’s assessment that the campuses are not “on fire.” Even at the Temple Hillel, the incident was discussed during Shabbat dinner last week, but so were summer vacations and plans for trips to Israel, said director Phil Nordlinger.
At the Temple Chabad, students met on Sunday for a welcome-back falafel event.
“The mood was upbeat and there was an interest in moving forward and being proud Jews,” said Rabbi Baruch Kantor.
The attendees discussed promoting an initiative to have students place mezuzahs on their doors, a symbol of God’s protection, said Kantor.
“The students want to channel this whole incident,” Kantor said, and build “a stronger Jewish identity on campus.”