In the 1990s show “Beverly Hills 90210,” student body president Brandon Walsh is torn between placating his university’s Black Student Union after they invite a Louis Farrakhan-type figure to address the campus, and his best friend Andrea Zuckerman, who feels threatened by the speaker’s history of anti-Semitic remarks.
Heated words are exchanged, protests ensue, and the tension on campus is thick.
What may have been a moment of fiction on a TV show more than 25 years ago is now the reality on many college campuses. With well-regarded universities inviting controversial figures like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Holocaust-denier David Irving, and, most recently, at the University of North Carolina, Asheville campus, Women’s March leader Tamika Mallory, pro-Israel advocates are galvanizing to counter what they perceive as an uptick of anti-Semitism in higher-education settings.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses have nearly doubled to 204 in 2018, from 108 in 2016.
In the face of these developments, advocating for Israel can seem an uphill battle.
“I already knew I loved Israel, but I did have trouble explaining to people the complexities of life here and why an ‘answer’ to problems in the Middle East is not as simple as people think they are or wish them to be,” said Leor Clark, a junior in Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
Clark was one of the dozens of students who visited Israel this month as part of the Hasbara Fellowships Training program — an intensive, 16-day trip to Israel where students are given the tools to battle misinformation spread against Israel and the Jewish people on college campuses.
In Clark’s school, for example, leaflets with swastikas were found last year near the Jewish student center.
“Our goal is for them to come back to campus as ambassadors for Israel, and to educate and inspire their campus communities,” said Robyn Frum, Hasbara Fellowships managing director.
Fellows also learn on the trip to contend with student groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which condemn Israel’s government and side unilaterally with Palestinians. While the former does not have a unified position on the BDS movement, the latter openly supports it.
These organizations are savvy, well-organized and know how to get their message across, both in college campuses on in the media. Now, pro-Israel activists want to do the same.
“We don’t have the same level of experience as students who fight for Palestine, which is a legitimate cause. They are more effective communicators,” David Shraga, a Hasbara Fellow and junior at Santa Monica College told JNS.
The prevalence of these groups on campus has caused division among Jewish students and is another confusing element in what is already a very complicated subject to wade into.
“IfNotNow and other organizations like them are prevalent on a lot of college campuses, and students have to deal with that. It’s difficult because when you have a bunch of students supporting BDS and Jewish students supporting BDS,” said Frum.
What used to be an anomaly is now a growing trend on some campuses. “Over the years, I’ve seen more Jewish students support BDS, and that’s quite problematic. It used to be a situation with Jewish students being tokenized for their opinion, but we’ve seen it’s no longer tokenization because there are a number of Jewish students supporting BDS,” she added.
While students were given advice how to be prepared to counter aggressive, anti-Israel rhetoric, the focus of their training was on building strong, human-to-human relationships with their fellow students — and not go on the attack.
“We tell students that 95 percent of the time they should really focus on educating and inspiring their communities, and controlling the message they want to communicate,” advised Frum. “Five percent of the time, though, they need to focus on anti-Israel propaganda.”
Taking a page from the social-justice and intersectionality playbook, Hasbara Fellows have learned that speaking from the gut brings results.
“I’ve learned to make your stories personal. That’s something that can’t be taken away or denied. Oftentimes, these groups talk about their experiences and emotions,” said Shraga. “So if I come to the table with my own personal stories, I think that can be an effective tool.”
From visiting the Gaza border to listening to Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, a reporter from The Jerusalem Post, the students amassed a treasure trove of stories to take home with them.
“There were very different perspectives. We met with people on the right and the left, and some anti-Zionists who didn’t believe Israel had a right to exist,” said Hasbara Fellow Ysbella Hazad of Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec. “It wasn’t a brainwashing trip. They let you learn and explore and gain hands-on experience, which lets you make up your own mind.”
“I just tell it as it is,” Toameh told JNS. “I say look, ‘Here are my impressions. There’s something wrong going on with the other side. It’s easy to blame Israel, but we have to look what’s happening on the other side as well.’”
Which is why when the students visited the site where Israeli American Ari Fuld, 45, was stabbed to death by a terrorist, they listened intently as local citizens recalled the incident. From the security guard on duty to the woman minding the falafel stand nearby, they spoke in detail about the tragedy that unfolded. It was a chilling moment that Clark will not soon forget.
“Our trip leader was one of the eyewitnesses when it happened and he told his story, and I’ve never been so in shock about the reality here and how close it hits to home,” said Clark. “Suddenly, all the emotions I’ve felt throughout the trip hit me at once, and I felt helpless for a moment. But then I felt hope. Life goes on in Israel, despite constant threats from all sides, and I know that going home and defending the country that I love on my campus will be the greatest mission I could have right now.”