fighting back

Common foes face Jewish students worldwide


They may live thousands of miles apart, but student activists from around the world identify various shared challenges living as Jews in their respective countries and campuses.

At the 44th congress of the World Union of Jewish Students, in Jerusalem from Dec. 28 to Jan. 1, 157 delegates from 36 countries gathered to connect and what it means to be a Jewish student leader today.

Outgoing WUJS Chairperson Yos Tarshish said major issues facing Jewish college students are anti-normalization efforts against students who “have any sort of connection to Israel” as well as the rise of far-right, neo-Nazi political parties. 

Yanir Grindler, WUJS chair at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, said racial identity plays a “big part in the discussion on campus.”

“South African Jews are seen as white before they are seen as Jewish … [they] assume that we represent Israel,” and as a result, “student societies, movements, and NGOs that represent South African civil society won’t engage with us because of our whiteness,” Grindler told JNS.

Grindler said that during “Israeli Apartheid Week” on the Wits campus, BDS activists aimed to persuade students by framing their agenda as a class-based and race-based struggle, erecting a mock demonstration “where one side is soldiers, representing white, middle class South African Jews and Israel … and the other side [are] underprivileged students.”

In Austria, WUJS student activists claim that the biggest challenge comes not from the left, but from the far right. 

Benjamin Guttmann, co-president with Benjamin Hess of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students, said “that our anti-Semitic government isn’t a partisan or political issue,” said Guttmann.

He said the Austrian Freedom Party, which is part of recently elected Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s governing coalition, is a “far-right party founded by the members of the former Nazi party” and a “serious threat not only to Jews, but also to democracy.”

Hess voiced concern about new members of the Austrian government and parliamentarians whom he described as “right-wing, anti-Semitic and … active in militant neo-Nazi organizations.” 

To address this, the Austrian student leaders built coalitions between campuses and countries, working with WUJS to issue a statement against their government. Further, they plan to put together an open letter signed by WUJS representatives “to show that Jewish students stand united against this ideology,” said Guttmann.

Nurit Becker, a student in Mexico City, told JNS that her biggest takeaway from the congress was learning that apathy within the Jewish student community is both the main challenge she finds in Mexico and a common obstacle for students worldwide. 

As the head of international relations for the Mexican WUJS delegation, Becker has made it her mission to address apathy in her country’s universities through projects that activate students to get involved with issues that face the Jewish community. She said she also collaborates with other student leaders to “help each other and share campaigns.”

Becker said Mexico experiences very little anti-Semitism, and was surprised to hear about her peers’ encounters with Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism.

“At the congress,” she said, “I learned that the life in Mexico for Jewish people is a completely different reality [from the situation in other countries].”