When former Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky spoke in Portland last June, he called American universities the most important battlefield for today’s Jews.
“I wrote an article, Traveling to Occupied Territories, where occupied territories meant American universities,” he said. “I understood how dangerous and successful our enemies are and the power of their propaganda.”
We checked the local situation with Andy Gitelson, the executive director of Oregon Hillel, Eugene; Amy Albertson of With Israel; and Dr. Michael Weingrad, director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University. We found that while anti-Israel stridency varies among campuses, student organizations and individuals are making a difference by promoting dispassionate discussion and portraying Israel as the vibrant, three-dimensional culture that it is.
“For us, there is not a lot of outright hostility,” Gitelson said. “This year, we had a small anti-Israel rally on campus. In re- sponse, Hillel, the Jewish Student Union and the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity came together for a pro-Israel peace rally. Every Eugene synagogue and community organization sent representa- tives. We saw this as an opportunity to galvanize the community and counteract what people see on CNN. And, we try to be proactive. We’re starting a coffeehouse series with speakers and Israeli artists.” Gitelson believes apathy stems from a lack of awareness and education.
“Parents and synagogues have not talked to today’s college students about the importance of Israel, so there is this void,” he said. “Because it’s controversial, we’ve taken the path of least resistance and not talked about the great things that are coming out of Israel. It’s more of a melting pot than the United States. The key is getting students who have not been to Israel (to go to Israel). Birthright Israel is a transformative experience.”
For the most part, PSU’s Jewish, Muslim and Arab student associations work well together and even co-sponsored a Middle Eastern musical program last year. Still, there are protests and small anti-Israel groups on campus. Amy Albertson and Brittany McCay co-lead the interfaith student advocacy group With Israel.
“Students either know nothing about Israel or are getting a negative message,” Albertson said. “The only thing you see on campus about Israel is conflict and human rights violations. Even when we have cultural programs, the anti-Israel group criticizes us for not talking about the issues. We want to legitimize the Israeli culture.”
Last year’s visit by Gideon Lustig, the deputy consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region, included an Israeli Shabbat. With menu guidance from Portland Shlicha Natalie Nahome, students researched and taught history through the food they prepared. For example, Israeli couscous developed when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion challenged the young Israeli food industry to create rice from flour in order to sustain waves of North African immigrants during a food shortage.
“Protestors stood in the hall and called it a ‘silent corridor of shame,’” Albertson said. “Then they came into the event, but we laid down the rules – no interruptions. During the recent escala- tion in Gaza, we organized counter-protests. But, they have big numbers when they go out to Pioneer Square.”
“It makes you angry when people write horrible things,” Albertson continued. “They always come up with – they are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic. We’ve been called racist. People think if you’re pro-Israel, you are anti-Palestinian and anti- Islamic. A big tactic is to bring in a Jewish student who says, ‘I think Israel is awful.’ We emphasize this doesn’t mean anything. We interact with our opposition and try to be friendly.”
Dr. Michael Weingrad directs the Jewish Studies Department at PSU. “The situation has improved,” he said. “In the past, the hostile climate was a combination of anti-Israeli students and local activists demonizing Israel on campus, bias against Israel in some Middle East Studies courses and left-wing Jewish community groups unwittingly pushing this over the edge. These groups intend to criticize Israeli policies but do not understand the situation on campus or the challenges students face with that barrage of anti-Israel programming.”
Weingrad notes that communication has improved greatly under James Grehan, the current director of the Middle East Studies Center, and that anti-Israel extremists have marginalized themselves. Like Gitelson and Albertson, he emphasizes the im- portance of positive Israel programming and welcomes the new Israeli Studies professor Dr. Nina Spiegel, who will emphasize bringing dancers and other cultural groups to campus.
“There’s always a concern with anti-Israel activism in a worldwide context, and if there is an escalation, the campus can heat up,” Weingrad said. “We need to channel credible discussion, not Israel bashing.”
Polina Olsen is a freelance writer and author in Portland.