Imagine that it’s an ordinary weekday. You’ve gotten up early to head to class in-person at your university, morning coffee in hand, passing by the usual outdoor tables and buildings. Suddenly, your eye captures a few glances at a colossal wooden display on the quad. It’s graffitied with flashy colors on a vapid gray backdrop and seems like a random art project, with students peering over nearby.
The hubbub of clubs selling baked goods with music blaring would ordinarily make the display a blur, but the buzzwords inscribed in bright paint, “Israeli apartheid”, “genocide”, and “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people” seizes your attention. You may keep on walking to class, but the negative impression of the display is etched in your mind.
For too many years, on dozens of campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)’s “Israeli Apartheid Week” display has influenced students with misinformation about the Jewish State and its people, unabated. Jewish and Israeli students, with limited to plenty of knowledge about the Arab-Israeli conflict, have frequently reported experiences of harassment and intimidation by this wall, derived solely from their ethnic, religious, or national affinity with the State of Israel. In other circumstances, the display has been put up when most Jewish students are away from campus for Passover or other gatherings, to stifle any responses that would hold SJP accountable.
In previous years, more aggressive campaigns linked with the BDS movement targeted Jewish students. “Die-in’s” or gruesome, fictitious enactments of students cosplaying as murdered Palestinian civilians and sometimes even “bloodthirsty Israeli soldiers”, used to be a lot more frequent. These disturbing blood-libels-in-action blocked walkways on campus, creating a very intimidating environment, sparking a natural aversion in ordinary student passers-by. They became less prolific for the aforementioned reason. Likewise, mock “Israeli eviction notices” used to pervade residence halls and dorms, disproportionately targeting Jewish students until administrators were pressured to take action.
These experiences have had deep implications for Jewish student life, documented across Jewish student and communal organizations, such as Jewish On Campus, Hillel International, the AMCHA Initiative, CAMERA on Campus, and more.
Many Jewish and Zionist student groups have debated the best approaches to respond to such calculated displays of bigotry. Depending on the campus or student group, some have opted to lay low and not “give fuel to the fire”. However, given the relentless history of BDS, complacency is actually a recipe for more harm than any potential backlash for speaking out.
Alternatively, proactive student groups have chosen to promote positive values, sharing Israel’s story, and promoting education and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Some have even combated Zionophobic and antisemitic misinformation head-on or provided their own visual initiatives to share the experiences of Israeli civilians and share Jewish pride, regardless of the conflict. The following are some powerful examples.
APARTHEID WEEK EXPOSED
Consider CAMERA on Campus. After years of witnessing the “apartheid wall” on universities, CAMERA revolutionized how students can educate themselves and others about the truth with an online interface. This user-friendly website, apartheidweekexposed.org, is a remarkable resource that allows students to digitally navigate over precise replicas of SJP’s various apartheid walls and click to read about the truth of selected content.
Not only does the Apartheid Week Exposed campaign set a precedent for Israel activism, but it’s also a game-changer with phenomenal potential. Students can scan or interact with the link on their phones or computers directly and gain a more holistic understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict in seconds. Today, as an Israel professional in the field, I would hope that students take advantage and publicize its content in many formats.
HEBREW LIBERATION WEEK
Since 2017, the Students Supporting Israel (SSI) chapter at Columbia University launched Hebrew Liberation Week, a campaign infused with refreshing speakers, original tabling displays, art, and swag that shared the indigenous connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, the meaning of Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement, and Jewish pride. It raised eyebrows for being so assertive and unapologetic on an elite campus notorious for its history of antisemitic and Zionophobic activity, but it has spread as a tradition to many campuses since.
DIASPORA AWARENESS WEEK
Oftentimes, Jewish and Zionist students find themselves isolated on campus, unable to reach mutual solidarity with other marginalized groups. However, through one-on-one relationships with key leaders of the black student community, SSI at Santa Monica College defied this in 2018. Students in SSI, the Pan-African Student Union (PASU), and the Black Collegians co-hosted Diaspora Awareness Week. This special coalition shared tabling sessions with educational art on Pan-African nationalists and Zionists, such as Theodor Herzl and Marcus Garvey, highlighting the intersection and importance of diasporic experiences, ethnic revival, and reclaimed self-determination. The peak of the campaign culminated in a joint panel with first-generation immigrant Israeli and African students in the US and multi-generational American students of black and Jewish ancestry.
CHOOSE LOVE WEEK & SHINE A LIGHT ON ANTISEMITISM
At UCLA, where SSI’s HLW and its similar spin-off, Israel Pride Week, have also taken off, students in Bruins For Israel host Choose Love Week and Shine A Light on Antisemitism. Choose Love Week most famously combats polarization on campus by encouraging student dialogue (including earnest dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict) and making free T-shirts with painted inscriptions of “love” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic together. Shine A Light on Antisemitism attracts students with soufganiot to write on a Post-it display how they would like to ally with the Jewish community, given a sharp rise in antisemitic hate crimes, while signing a pledge to speak up. Both have the advantage of personal photo opportunities and positive content to-go that drown out the sound of bigotry on campus.
Since 2020, Fellows and Ambassadors from the Israeli-American Council’s college program, Mishelanu, have participated in the annual Spring #6MillionSteps campaign, which brings students and community members outdoors to track their steps. Together, they publicize their walks in an effort to educate their peers about the six million Jews who were systematically murdered in the Holocaust at the hands of Nazi Germany and its accomplices. While it’s definitely a more solemn initiative, it has a tremendous impact on a young generation that is increasingly lacking Holocaust education and direct access to survivors.
SQUEEZE YOUR CHALLENGES
StandWithUs offers their campus Emerson Fellows, a number of positive Experiential Israel Programs (EIP’s) and resources, including pop-up displays that either directly inform passers-by or reel them in with a universal message and engaging activity. The Squeeze Your Challenges EIP is a decorative lemonade stand with giant foam “lemons” you can write your challenges on and squeeze. The pitch? Just as we’re inspired by the resilience of the Jewish people, who ‘squeezed their lemons’ in reviving Israel and overcame great odds, you too can be inspired and achieve your goals. It’s tasty, relatable, captivating, and yes, proactive.
OUR SAFE SPACE
Have you ever wondered how Israelis manage to flee Hamas and Hezbollah rocket fire into bomb shelters in as less as fifteen seconds? In 2019, SSI National introduced its Our Safe Space: Bomb Shelter campaign. Informative painted posters provide compelling visuals with an authentic look that are draped onto either a PVC or wooden structure that students help build into a mock Israeli “bomb shelter”. Not only does this visually humanize the Israeli narrative against terror, but it also holds Hamas and Palestinian leaders accountable for harming both their citizens and Israelis in context. Since the pandemic, the initiative has only been brought to several campuses, however, it’s very likely to soar as one of the most dynamic projects for Zionist students in the near future.
No matter what direction you’re looking to take your Israel activism on campus, embrace the unique opportunity that you have to amplify your voice. If you’ve tested out a campaign that successfully garnered a lot of positive student attention, share it! It’s more critical than ever that pro-Israel students communicate and build a united movement to empower our communities. You are the next generation of Zionism. As a great Israel activist and founder of SSI at Columbia once said, “Tell your story, before others tell it for you”.
Justin Feldman is a CAMERA on Campus Fellowship alumnus and the National Activism Manager for the Israeli-American Council (IAC)’s college program, Mishelanu.