When Israel-supporting faculty and students returned from winter break last January, they found an escalation of hostility toward Israel and its supporters that occasionally crossed boundaries from civil exchange to verbal abuse and physical intimidation. This new intensity of anti-Israel activity followed upon the kind of behavior seen in Chicago and throughout the world during Israel’s most recent war with the terrorist group Hamas, said JUF Executive Vice President Michael C. Kotzin, who has been working with campus activists and Hillel to address anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments and activities.
Since January, Chicago-area campuses have seen derogatory statements made about Israel supporters—such as during a disruption of a Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration at University of Illinois at Chicago; and flyers for a lecture defaced with swastikas, as happened when a speaker came to DePaul University this spring. Swastikas have also been found painted on the walls of at least two buildings at DePaul, and area students and faculty have been harassed both in person and in cyberspace. In addition, on several campuses throughout the state, pro-Israel lectures have been disrupted during question-and-answer sessions by people vilifying Israel and Jews. Anti-Israel speakers have also been voicing their views widely in campus lectures and one-sided panel discussions.
“We are seeing the emergence of a much more blunt, emboldened rhetoric, which specifically challenges Israel’s legitimacy,” Kotzin said. “Rather than being subtext, the rejection of Israel’s right to exist has become text.”
Although virulent anti-Israel protests have taken place on campuses since the beginning in 2000 of the violent campaign known as the Second Intifada, the recent spike seeks to delegitimize the idea of Israel as a Jewish state by equating the state—and therefore its citizens—to Nazis and twisting the imagery of the Holocaust to portray Israelis as the perpetrators and the Palestinians as the victims, Kotzin said.
“One can be critical of Israel, but this is much more,” he said. “It is a new form of anti-Semitism, which makes use of the images, vocabulary and themes of traditional anti-Semitism but is integrally connected with Israel and is based on attacks on Israel and its supporters. At its core is the notion that Jews aren’t entitled to a state of their own, and meanwhile Israel is demonized and scapegoated just as individual Jews once were.”
JUF has also worked with the administrations of various colleges and universities in the area, pointing out the overall hostile climate created by disparate events.
“Some of our students are feeling intimidated. There isn’t necessarily any coordination to a swastika appearing here or a poster defaced there, but it’s certainly contributing to a larger anti-Semitic climate,” said Nick Liebman, program director for DePaul Hillel, a program of Hillels Around Chicago. “Hillel and Jewish students at DePaul have been trying very hard to make the political climate on campus hospitable and approachable, so that it’s one of discourse rather than conflict.”
To this end, DePaul Hillel coordinated an intergroup vigil against anti-Semitism and racism. Hillel worked with the Black Student Union, the Muslim religious student group UMMA, the association for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, fraternities and sororities, and student government to make a united stand against all forms of bigotry on campus May 26.
At UIC, anti-Israel activity has been countered by a strong Jewish community that seeks to “present a multi-faceted broad-based view of Israel in all of its dimensions,” said Marla Baker, director of the Levine Hillel Center there. But anti-Israel outbursts can still shock students who grew up in large Jewish communities and have never faced any anti-Semitic actions.
“Particularly for students who are getting invested in Israel for the first time – maybe they went on Birthright recently – it’s very upsetting,” Baker said. “But it can also become an opportunity to work with those students to help strengthen their skills to respond in a positive and constructive way [to anti-Israel criticism].”
Although mainstream media no longer focus on Israel’s war with Hamas, some area campuses are still fighting the same battles, said Lindsay Folkerth, director of the JCRC/Hillel Israel Initiative Program.
“While the incidents we are seeing often have a political facet, there are very blurry boundaries between criticism of Israel and truly anti-Semitic rhetoric, whether it’s calling for boycotts of Jewish businesses or calling someone derogatory names because of their support for Israel,” she said.
Despite problems facing Israel supporters, JUF and Hillel have worked hard to affirm students’ and faculty’s connection to Israel in a meaningful way. And Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations, art exhibits and programs and courses focused on Israel are “countering the false oversimplified images of Israel with a more full-bodied sense of what Israel is as a creative, pluralistic democracy,” Kotzin said.
Throughout the academic year, the JCRC/Hillel Israel Initiative sponsors conferences, lectures, and Israeli speaker and cultural programs on campuses throughout the state of Illinois, as well as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and is part of a partnership between Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and JUF .