Back to school

Back to school israel image
Northwestern student Ariella Hoffman-Peterson fields questions as a member of the panel.

Earlier this year, DePaul students passed a troubling sight on their walk to class. Amid the hustle of swinging backpacks, an enormous mock-Apartheid Wall suddenly towered over the crowds of undergraduates. It seemed to have sprouted overnight and, in glaring red pen, implored students to support DePaul's divestment from Israeli products. The next day, it was there again. And the next.

For some, the wall stood as a proud testament of the plight of the Palestinians. For many Jewish students, it was yet another stinging reminder that their pro-Israel views were lodged firmly in the minority. 

"It was not until college that I realized my passion for Israel could no longer be a personal interest," says Noga Barpal, a student at Loyola University. "Rather, I had to step up as a pro-Israel voice on a campus that was largely dictated by Israel detractors."

We've all heard the stories -firebombed synagogues in Europe, anti-Irael demonstrations, messages of hate scribbled on our very streets of Chicago. As thousands of university students head back to school in the coming weeks, tensions are only going to rise as this war-heavy summer simmers into autumn. When Jewish students are faced with the decision of how to react, what will they choose?

Aug. 14, JUF's Israel Education Center (IEC) hosted a program for current and incoming students who may have to face anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic messages on campus. The event featured JUF staff, former University of Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman, Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Roey Gilad, and a panel of current Jewish students. 

"After the events of this summer's Israel-Hamas war and the ramping up of delegitimization efforts coupled with anti-Semitic tropes on social media, we want to ensure people know where to turn for resources and information," said IEC Director Emily Briskman.

Speakers addressed both parents and incoming students on what to expect, and how to react, to the events that could unfold in universities across the country. Healthy, respectful debate between two sides is something that should be encouraged on campus; the line is crossed, however, when students begin to
feel unsafe. 

As Richard Herman pointed out, while free speech is critical to a well-functioning university, it cannot be used to stifle the voices of others. Certain acts on campus, including a mock-Apartheid wall, send a message of hate and distance instead of encouraging peaceful and inclusive dialogue. 

But when it comes to advocacy for such a pressing, controversial issue, where do you draw the line between productively voicing opinions versus alienating others?

Richard Herman observed that it's expected that both sides will be passionate about their cause. But what's critical is to exude this passion in a non-intimidating way. For instance, rallies are generally acceptable; they spiral out of control when they become bellicose and really "get in people's faces." Boycotts such as BDS, however, are simply antithetical to a university's mission.

It's not all bad news, though. "The most rewarding thing about being pro-Israel on campus," DePaul student Rachel Ginsberg reflects, "is definitely the positive reinforcement I get. People tell me what I'm doing is meaningful and making a difference. I'm not feeling defeated."

The most frustrating? "The buzz words," she says immediately. According to Rachel, people often throw around certain heavy-handed phrases without really knowing the impact they make. "Genocide" or "apartheid" are incredibly weighty, accusatory, and inappropriate terms to toss around-and thus they become difficult to combat in reasonable debate.

After the panel, students and parents broke off into workshops led by Jewish community leaders from the area. These workshops lent a glimpse at what kinds of arguments students may face in campus, and provided some introductory history and political background of Israel and Palestine. 

While going back to school this year may not be easy, a few things are clear -being abrasive is not the way to go. "I don't always know where I stand," admits Northwestern student Ariella Hoffman-Peterson, in regards to the conflict. "But I am able to analyze and talk about the situation respectfully, and with pride." 

It's also important to do some research beforehand. Having a background knowledge of the conflict is key not just for the purpose of sparring with other impassioned undergraduates, but to be active citizens and Jews. Showing up to campus "intellectually armed" is really the best way to come prepared.

Some students might find that anti-Zionism/Semitism isn't much of an issue on their campus. Others may have to maneuver around mock-Apartheid walls on their way to class. Either way, it's important for students to know what's going on Israel and step onto campus with a confident opinion of their own.  

For more information about Israel on campus, please contact JUF's Israel Education Center at

Jessica Korneff, a freelance writer for JUF News and a blogger for Oy!Chicago, is a recent grad from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a degree in Journalism and Communications. 

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.