Photo courtesy ADL

By Rachel Fish, PhD.

When Rachel Beyda, an undergraduate economics major at the University of California, Los Angeles, was nominated for the Judicial Board, she did not anticipate being castigated by her peers for her Jewish identity and affiliations with Jewish campus organizations, such as Hillel and her sorority. Never could Beyda have imagined that, in the year 2015, her ability to remain unbiased so as to address sensitive governance matters would be called into question.

Meanwhile, at Brown University, Hillel students, along with other progressive student organizations on campus, such as Students for Color, LGBTQ Center, Women’s Center, and the Dean’s Office of Intercultural Student Engagement, co-sponsored the speaking invitation of transgender Black female activist, Janet Mock. Soon after, a group of students launched a campaign, including a petition, to pressure Janet Mock to cancel her presentation. Though, at first blush, one might think this was because of homophobic or transgender discrimination on campus, it was not. Rather, the rationale was that, if Mock presented under the auspices of a Hillel co-sponsored program then, implicitly, she supported the Zionist enterprise. Unfortunately, Mock succumbed to the pressure from these misguided students and relinquished her speaking platform at Brown. Could the Jewish students in Brown’s Hillel have anticipated that their advocacy of a transgender voice would be squelched due to their affiliation with a Jewish organization?

These examples illustrate one of the major challenges occurring on campus: the fact that Jewish students – who identify as Jews, engage in Jewish organizations and participate in Jewish life – may encounter the growing phenomenon of anti-Jewish politics at North American college campuses and universities. In these cases, the emphasis was on Jewish not Israel since Israel was not the main point of identification nor were these scenarios about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or how that conflict is represented or debated on campus. Of course, the anti-Jewish politics is also framed as anti-Israelism, including the BDS movement, which today’s students confront. The degree of anti-Jewish politics varies among campuses, and the stories of the many Jewish organizations supporting students on campus is often told. I want to ask another question: How has the Jewish community, and Jewish educators specifically, prepared their communities of high school learners for this anticipated reality on campus and how should they do so in the future?

In collaboration with The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and a steering committee of religiously and geographically diverse Jewish day school heads are convening a two-day conference, November 14-15, 2016, to explore the trends playing out in the academy and the campus quad: “From Anti-Zionism to Anti-Semitism: An Educators Conference.”

The conference intends to inform – not to alarm – us about the climate of college life today and to consider how Jewish schooling addresses the changed atmosphere that we and our students confront. Many of us are disturbed when the good that we take for granted – Zionism, Israel, and Judaism – are denounced as evil. We are confused when liberal ideas about diversity and progressivism are turned against the Jews who believe in those ideas. If we are troubled and confused, our students facing the assault are even more so. We have to know and better understand what they will have to confront.

Working with and learning from esteemed heads of school – Joyce Raynor, Gil Perl, Lee Buckman, Bruce Powell, and Raizi Chechik – the Schusterman Center has developed a conference to begin a vital new conversation that will directly address these campus realities. Building on the solid Israel education work already occurring in many Jewish day schools, this conference will examine the all too amorphous, and often ignored or marginalized, discussions about the underlying sensibilities and trends that create a hostile environment toward Jewish politics in general. Therefore, the primary purpose of the conference is to create an environment for teams of educators and administrators from Jewish day schools to consider how to share best practices for teaching about hatred toward Israel and hostility toward Israel supporters when it devolves into a form of anti-Semitism. Through different modalities, the conference is designed to give space and time to educators to deliberate pedagogical approaches, means of transmitting content, and curriculum ideas. The conference seeks to aid educators in identifying tools and practices needed to effectively prepare students for the emotional and cognitive experiences they may encounter on campus and beyond. It is our aim, with the generous support of The AVI CHAI Foundation and the expertise of the educational steering committee, to begin with the first step of raising awareness and generating a sense of urgency among day school educators to consider carefully how best to prepare their students for this challenging and, at times, uncomfortable new reality.

As we imagine, this subject is of great concern to many within the Jewish community. We invite teams of Jewish day school high school educators to participate in thinking about how best to prepare students for the encounters they may experience on campus and how Jewish day schools can approach this challenge in a more intentional and mindful way. Details about the conference can be found here. We welcome teams of 2-4 educators, heads of departments, administrators and board members to register and participate in this conversation.

Rachel Fish, PhD., is Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

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