This piece reflects the views of author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jewish on Campus.
“So, what are you doing over break?” It’s an unassuming question all students inevitably face as time off from school approaches. Many Jewish students tip-toe around their answer that some might find less than acceptable.
Birthright, which has its busy season running trips during semester breaks, is taboo in a lot of campus spaces. Jewish young adults, typically in college, go to Israel for ten days to learn about their homeland and experience the connection that has stuck with the Jewish people for 2,000 years. Yet many Jewish students who participate are met with backlash from their peers who liken the trip to an endorsement of Israel’s wrongdoings, whether real or fabricated. While thousands of Birthright participants undergo this rite of passage, the negative reactions by some of their peers is a rite of its own.
Participation in Birthright is a recurring hot topic of contention, perpetuating the rift between Jews and members of the campus community who wish to oust them. Jewish students know about the hostility on campus towards Israel and are aware that this may oust them from events, organizations and even social circles. They often see their peers stand against Israel, but it becomes more personal when Jewish students publicly identify with Israel. Now they are the ones their peers are standing against. When Jewish students see their peers march around campus calling to globalize the intifada, they tend to become reluctant to share that they spent their break climbing Masada and visiting the Western Wall.
In addition to signing up for the controversial ten-day organized trip, some simply take the time off as an opportunity to go visit their family and friends in Israel. Mentioning this in the conversations about prospective summer plans sheds light on the double standard applied to Jews and Israel: most people who visit family abroad do not walk on eggshells when sharing their vacation plans, but Jewish students visiting Israel know that in many spaces, they’re better off not sharing details about their break. Many people use semester breaks as an opportunity to visit family abroad, why should Jews face harassment and backlash for doing so?
This double standard also arises when students plan to study abroad in Israel; mention of the topic and sometimes attempts to get letters from professors or approval from the university are met with backlash and additional challenges. Students who wish to study abroad elsewhere rarely face such issues, indicating that this is the product of Jewish students being held to an antisemitic double standard.
Antisemitism often spikes when students return to campus for a new semester. This can likely be due, in part, to a sense of making up for lost time over break. Club tabling also is typically more active at the beginning of the semester and sometimes these organizations send a message that Jews are welcomed conditionally. In an environment which often welcomes hostility with full force at the start of the term, Jewish students returning to campus feel on edge about expressing their Judaism and Israel-related experiences. Association with Israel has not only resulted in Jewish students being isolated from their peers, but censored, harassed and even doxxed.
Students face negative reactions to their Israel connections in their personal lives and in the classroom, but the issue becomes public when it’s laid out in a student publication for the entire school to read and ridicule. While school papers extend a voice to students to share with their community, it also offers itself as a battleground for a hostile back and forth on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, published an article with disinformation about Birthright and the Jewish connection to the land of Israel earlier this year. When Jewish students wrote an op-ed in response and were met with even more hostility. Similarly, a Harvard student and editor for the Harvard Crimson faced backlash for publicly aligning herself with the land of her ancestors in response to a piece published by the editorial board endorsing the antisemitism of BDS. Students confronting this sentiment in passing is one thing, but the publicness and scale of the issue as depicted by its recurring presence in school publications indicates an issue embedded into university culture and attitudes.
In a time where universities claim to be putting an extra emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is imperative that antisemitism also be adequately addressed by these initiatives. Universities let this hostile behavior continue, even amid a greater initiative to make campus a safer, more inclusive place. They demonstrate to students that Jews need not be accounted for in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. This reaction — or really, lack thereof — by administrations contributes to the normalization of antisemitism on campus.
With collegiate antisemitism rising around the globe, now is the time for universities to be vocal about their standing and demonstrate clearly that students are valued members of their campus community. Students should not have to shy away from discussing their plans to connect to their religion, heritage, or culture.