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|Hillel: "The goal: fighting Arab and Muslim activity on U.S. college campuses."|
|01/05/02 at 03:33:36|
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if not now then when is a question that I am constantly asking myself these
days. The student movement must reclaim its rightful place on campuses
across the US and Canada. Not doing so today will find us regretful
tomorrow. This article is just another stark reminder that even as we sleep,
those opposed to our presence in America continue to plan to stifle our
voice, to marginalize and restrict our participation, and ultimately, to
turn us back on our heels. We will not be stifled, we shall not be
marginalized nor our participation restricted and we shall never, ever,
bi'idhnillah turn back on our heels.
Please read and reflect on this article.
your brother in the struggle,
Saturday, January 05, 2002 Tevet 21, 5762 Israel Time: 05:55 (GMT+2)
Tiffs at the family table
By Lily Galili
(From left) - Tzahi Rosenberg, Michal Berdugo and Stuart Jacobs. A wake-up
(Photo: Photos by Lily Galil)
The 700 members of Hillel (The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) who
participated last month in the General Assembly of the United Jewish
Communities (UJC) in Washington, D.C. wore on their lapels a blue-and-white
button bearing the slogan: "Israel. We're family." That is very moving -
even if there was a time when the slogan denoting the relationship between
Israel and American Jewry was "We are one." Today the family is an extended
one - and it has its problems.
The number of students who came to the GA in Washington this year from all
over the U.S. was the largest ever. They were swallowed up in the sea of
VIPs from the Jewish establishment, but it was clear to everyone that these
students constitute the special task force that now has a mission of great
political importance. The goal: fighting Arab and Muslim activity on U.S.
September 11 created a new situation in the relationship between the U.S.
and Israel, and the Jews have an important role in this relationship. On the
superficial level, the American administration has given almost unlimited
support to Israeli policies. What could be more heartwarming to the Jews of
America than the president lighting Hanukkah candles in the White House? And
what could make the Jews of New York prouder than an outgoing mayor (Rudolph
Giuliani) and an incoming mayor (Michael Bloomberg) demonstrating their
identification with Israel at the site of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem?
The expression that has become widespread in America after the terrorist
attack, "Now we understand how the Israelis live," is sweet music to the
ears of most American Jews. The harmony between the two countries is, after
all, an important component of their existence. But beneath the surface,
there are other streams. The atmosphere on campuses all over America is a
prominent example of this underlying complexity.
Same balance of power
Even before September 11, the Jews of America, mainly those who are
committed to Israel, followed with increasing concern the considerable
success of Arab-Palestinian propaganda on campuses all over America. Right
before the attack on the World Trade Center, Hillel heard of the intention
of Arab and Muslim organizations to set up symbolic "roadblocks" on the
campuses, in order to illustrate to the student body the humiliation
suffered by the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The attack on the WTC
led to the cancellation of the roadblock campaign, but did not really change
the balance of power on campuses such as Berkeley, Michigan, Columbia and
Liberal campuses like these are a problem not only for Israel, but for U.S.
policy in general. According to internal surveys in the U.S., students still
support American policy, but even now, the campuses are enclaves from which
dissonant sounds emerge that spoil the patriotic harmony. These are the
places where they are asking tough questions about the nature of the
American response; this is the arena in which an increasing interest in
Islam is being expressed. Books, lecturers and lectures on Islamic subjects
are very popular. Some consider this phenomenon a natural response, a matter
of "Know thine enemy." Some Jews fear that some of those who are showing
interest will not stop at intellectual curiosity, but will be captivated by
the exotic attraction of the idea, with the result that the delicate balance
on the campuses will be even further upset.
Some of what is happening on the campuses is considered a natural
generational issue. This generation of students grew up on the Vietnam War
in the movies, and on the humiliating American retreat from Somalia on
television, and from these two sources, they learned that war and force are
not always the solution.
"They absorbed the opposition to Vietnam from their parents, and now they
are confused," says Georgia Pollack, a public relations person for the
liberal Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, not far from New York City.
The first reaction of the student body at this campus, one of whose students
lost his father in the attack on the WTC, was the establishment of a
coalition against unjust reprisals, already in the afternoon hours of
September 11. Even Jewish students joined the coalition.
"I ask myself why that was the first reaction here," says Pollack, who
converted to Judaism when she married. "The college authorities allowed
them, of course, to do what they wanted, but I'll tell you something in an
unofficial capacity: I don't understand why there isn't enough of a Jewish
voice on campuses, in general. I did a small study of my own among Jewish
organizations, and the only answer I received was that there is a tremendous
range of opinions among the Jews, and there isn't actually a uniform `Jewish
position,' as opposed to the Arab position. If I were an Israeli, I would
invest all my money and effort in Jewish education for America's young
The starting point for the educational process is not encouraging, neither
from the point of view of established American Jewry, nor from that of
official Israel. About 400,000 Jewish students are studying today at
colleges and universities all over the U.S.; about 20,000 of them, only
about 5 percent, have any connection to the Jewish community; about 2,000 of
these are considered the young leaders of Hillel.
"This last year of the intifada was hard for me on campus," says Tzahi
Rosenberg of Wayne State University in Michigan, whose parents left Israel
about eight years ago. "I walked around campus surrounded by shouts of `PLO
forever' as though inside a shell, even with a sense of fear."
Stuart Jacobs of the University of Michigan says that the immediate reaction
on his campus disturbed him very much. "I was angry at expressions like: `We
have to be careful not to discriminate against the Arab community.' One of
the problems is that as opposed to a united Arab-Muslim community, there
isn't really a Jewish community. There are a lot of individuals with a sense
of identification, but they don't combine into one community."
Michal Berdugo, who was also participating in the GA for the first time,
says that at her small university, there are about 400 Jews (in a student
body of about 2,000), but only about 20-30 of them come to Jewish events of
any kind. After September 11, the question of Israel's blame for the
terrorist attack was brought up for discussion in many classes. "There are
many harsh statements against the Jewish students," she says; "A friend of
mine was the only Jew in her class when they spoke in this way, and it
wasn't easy for her. Her professor didn't exactly jump to her assistance."
Some of the students who were attending the large Jewish convention for the
first time define what happened on September 11 as a "wake-up call" that
demands an end to complacency, and points up the need to organize private
feelings of identification into a community that speaks with one voice.
Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] and AIPAC [the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee - the U.S. pro-Israel lobby] are
now hastening to give Israeli public relations materials to the Jewish
students who received emergency appointments as Israeli delegates on the
campuses. "There are students who want to help Israel, but don't know how,"
says Robert Lichtman, vice president of Hillel, "but there are also many
students who are not even sure that they want to do so."
Within this complex situation lies the basic question of the link between
American Jews and Israel. Some consider Israel an asset, others consider it
a burden, but there are also many who simply do not consider the Jewish
state relevant in defining their identity. That is the case with Barbara
Weinberg, a social worker and a third-generation New Yorker. Weinberg, who
is in her thirties, has never visited Israel and feels no great wish to do
so. "The State of Israel is definitely not part of how I define my
identity," she says. "In the home where I grew up there were no symbols of
organized Judaism, and Israel did not exist. The Jewish state does not
define my identity as a Jew; the Jewish people - yes, and most of them are
here, in America."
But even the many who feel like Weinberg find it difficult to escape the
symbiosis between Israel and American Jews that is sometimes forced on them
by their surroundings, which consider all the Jews one big tribe. They are
asked to explain Israel and to defend it, sometimes against their will. "In
all the years when I was growing up, Israel was a unifying factor for the
Jews of America," says Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a professor at the Harvard Law
School, who is involved in Israel's affairs. "Today, Israel is in many cases
a divisive factor. The anti-Semites simply love [Prime Minister] Ariel
Sharon, because he supplies them with an excuse."
One of the incidents that illustrates the delicate seam-line between the
attitude towards the State of Israel and the situation of American Jews,
took place right in front of Dershowitz's house. A short time after the
attack on the WTC, a group of three Episcopalian bishops in Boston joined a
large group of Palestinians in an anti-Israel demonstration in front of the
Israeli consulate in the city. The slogans were directed against Israel's
policy in the territories, the flags were Palestinian. The Jewish community,
which has felt particularly vulnerable during recent months, protested
against what it saw as an anti-Semitic demonstration.
"That's a stupid reaction," says Prof. Michael Walzer of the Institute for
Advanced Study at Princeton University, author of the book "Just and Unjust
Wars" (Princeton: Basic Books, 1977), in a dismissive reaction to this
interpretation. "But it certainly was a wicked demonstration. There is a
type of reaction to the September terror attack by the religious left, which
turns Al-Qaida into a promoter of the political agenda of these
organizations. But that is not anti-Semitism."
Dershowitz does see an anti-Semitic dimension to this demonstration, but he
places part of the blame on Israel. "Failures of Israeli public relations
are endangering American Jews," he states in his assertive style. "I have a
hard time understanding how Jews, who are supposed to be great experts in
all areas of communications, are so bad at PR. How is it that not one Hanan
Ashrawi [a well-known Palestinian spokeswoman] has been produced by Israel?
On the other hand, the friends of the Jews in the academic world are simply
remaining silent. The least courageous people on earth are tenured
professors." He laughingly says that he exploits his tenure for negative
purposes every day.
On the political left, Dr. Bernard Avishai, who writes often on Israeli
issues, claims that it is not PR, but Israel's policy, that is threatening
American Jews. "Most American Jews have never considered the settlement
project and Israeli-style Orthodoxy an expression of themselves. They only
accepted them passively. In my opinion, this attitude is about to disappear.
When America is fighting Islamic fundamentalism and is demanding that it
internalize the democratic ethos into its religious world, the Jews can no
longer say: `We are allowed to have our Taliban.' The events of September 11
have only brought the issue to a head. On the one hand, terror in America
temporarily made it easier to explain that the occupation is a necessary
evil stemming from Palestinian terror; on the other hand, when the Jews,
like other Americans, now look around at what is incompatible with America's
democratic values, they see the settlement movement, which they will have a
hard time defending."
There appears to be an open contradiction between the approach of
Dershowitz, who considers the weakness of Israeli PR a danger to the world's
Jews, and that of Avishai, who considers Israel's policy a threat to the
Jews of the U.S. But on a deeper level, both share a view that sees the
State of Israel and the Jews of America as two almost inseparable entities
in a symbiotic relationship.
This is how things looked in an exhibition on the subject of Jewish identity
that opened at the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish
History in Manhattan, about six weeks after the attack on the WTC. In a
large oil painting in the entrance, a Nazi soldier is seen grabbing the arm
of a skeleton wrapped in a tallit [Jewish prayer shawl]. In another corner
of the room there was a display: Under the front pages of newspapers
documenting the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, stood a plant containing soil from
the Land of Israel and a large spoon. The defiant caption read: "Clinton's
peace plan - the President invites you to take some of the Holy Land." From
the display at the exhibition designed to document Jewish identity through
art, one could conclude that the Holocaust and Israel are still the
principal components in defining Jewish identity in America. This
description stands in sharp contradiction to studies showing the weakening
of the link to Israel among younger American Jews. This gap can be explained
by the gap between the depth of alienation felt by "disaffected" Jews and
the depth of the connection to Israel of "committed" American Jews.
The findings of surveys conducted after September 11 indicate a general
increase in the strengthening of the link with Israel, and a further turn to
the right among American Jews. A survey conducted after the attack on the
WTC by Prof. Steven Cohen, a sociologist from Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, for the American Jewish weekly Forward, painted an interesting
picture: 48 percent of American Jews reported that they feel "much more
connected" to their American identity; only 17 percent of those polled
reported that they felt "much more connected to their Jewish identity." A
little over half defined their attitude towards Israel as "somewhat
connected." About 60 percent of American Jews reported that they see these
two components of their identity as being in "great harmony."
But this harmony may now be disturbed. The overwhelming majority of American
Jews summarily reject the possibility of the development of a conflict of
interest between America and Israel, to the point where they will have to
decide to which side their loyalty belongs. "At my college we used to argue
about the question of which side we would be on if Israel and America were
to fight one another," recalls Neil Rubin, editor of a Jewish newspaper in
Baltimore. "My answer was, and remains, that in order for such a situation
to develop, something so monumental has to go wrong in one of the countries,
that it will be obvious on which side I will be."
These college conversations, which are reminiscent of discussions in an
Israel Scout troop, have now been replaced with fear of a conflict of values
between the two countries. Together with the wave of patriotism that
characterizes America during the present struggle, one can begin to hear
voices that are testing the limits of right and wrong even in the situation
of a just war. This discourse is an inseparable part of the great American
ethos, and it will not remain within the confines of an internal discussion.
Its significance for Israel, especially after September 11, could be: Terror
is in fact very bad, and it justifies a determined struggle, backed by
support; but occupation and settlements are a moral evil. Opposition to the
settlements has always been America's political position, but now America,
including the Jews, is also thinking in terms of morality.
For years, American Jews have been confused in their attitude towards the
political process in Israel, Even those among them (about 50 percent) who
support the dovish position, have felt that they were prevented from
expressing their opinion, because they have no moral right to talk about
this issue. Now this feeling may change. Moreover, American Jews who have
been making a special effort during recent months to demonstrate their part
in the American ethos, may be pushed into making a decision. "September 11
is definitely not only good news for Ariel Sharon," says Prof. Steven Cohen,
who researches American Jewry. "What concerns American Jews even more than a
critical attitude towards Israel is the possibility that America will
withdraw from its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and
return to its isolationist tendencies after completing what it is doing
Even before the long-term consequences of September 11 have become clear,
one phenomenon in the complex relationship between Israel and American Jews
stands out: the disappearance of the guilt factor. The loaded dialogue
between Israelis and American Jews was always accompanied by a hidden
subtext of "You give money and support, but we give blood; you live there in
peace, and we live here with terror." September 11, as a collective American
experience, has erased this guilt factor. "I personally never felt guilty,
but I see this change, too," says an American Jewish intellectual. "It's a
change for the better, of course. Maybe now we can conduct a more honest
dialogue with Israel."
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