Friday, February 25, 2005


Why Jewish students are really silent

Guy Spigelman, a Labor Party activist in Israel, has an interesting op-ed in Ha'aretz today about the role of Jewish students on campus. Spigelman responds to requent quotes from Likud MK Natan Sharansky (Bush's favorite author) about Jews on campus being like Russian "Jews of Silence." Sharansky's innuendo is that college campuses in the US are bastions of anti-Semitism, hatred, and repression, where Jewish students must live in muted fear. Having lived on a college campus for four years quite recently, I can assure you that this was not my experience. For thoughts on the specific example of Columbia, I'll take the word of biology professor Robert Pollack:
While few people have questioned the accuracy of the student accounts in “Columbia Unbecoming,” many on campus, like biology professor Robert Pollack, have been left wondering how one of the best-funded, most vibrant Jewish communities on any campus in America has become the symbol of all that is wrong for Jewish students at American universities.

“As the first Jewish dean of an Ivy league school, in 1982, and as the president of the board that built this Hillel,” Pollack said, referring to the six-story center for Jewish students, “I can tell you this is not an anti-Semitic place.”

Pollack added: “The question is, why am I not believed? Why do people pick the weak film over the strong reality of the place itself?” [from an article in the Forward]
The reason why, of course, is because it suits those like Sharansky and major pro-Israel American Jewish groups to perpetuate the myth of the "weak film" over the "strong reality." And this political stance that united Sharansky and major pro-Israel American Jewish groups, and, as a result, most Jewish campus groups, is what actually leads many Jewish students to be "silent," says Spigelman.
At universities across the world from Europe to Australia to the U.S., Jewish students - inclined, as are all students, to lean towards the left during this period of life - are in a bind. They are torn between the communal message of unquestioning support for the state of Israel and their real concerns about the corrosive effects of occupying another people. There has been no room for a middle ground....

Minister Sharansky - if you want the future leaders of the Jewish community to stop being silent, to stop feeling like they are in Soviet Russia - encourage criticism and all streams of Jewish thought, left, right and in between to get out and make their many voices heard. Let them speak about Israel for good and for bad, warts and all.
And while I disagree with Spigelman's views on the conflict (which are pretty typical Labor party views), I think he is right on this point. While pro-Israel student groups are obviously much stronger on campuses in the US than pro-Palestinian groups (any belief that it is the opposite is probably fueled by scare tactics and propaganda rather than reality), the reason that there are so many Jewish students choosing to "sit it out" is partly the result of the fact that most of the powerfully organized groups are affiliated with organizations that tow a pretty uncompromising line on Israel, one that fits in better with the Likud and the right wing than the more moderate parties that students might feel closer to. (Of course, the other major factor is that college kids would rather party or play videogames than organize a rally, no matter what their political affiliation.)

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