Hillel VP: Local anti-Israel activity is most extreme in U.S.

"Clearly, the Bay Area is 'ground zero' from the campus standpoint for the Arab-Israeli conflict," said the Washington, D.C.-based Rubin, in town last week to meet with Bay Area Hillel leaders.

"There's no other place where things are happening with the intensity you have here."

In other parts of the country, pro-Palestinian student groups have taken out newspaper ads or held small demonstrations. But only in the Bay Area have anti-Israel campus rallies attracted thousands of onlookers.

And only in Berkeley, San Francisco and Davis have Hillels and other houses of worship been vandalized, he said. More than anywhere else, Jewish students here have expressed discomfort about being identifiably Jewish on campus.

The Bay Area universities are not microcosms of the rest of the country — at least not yet, Rubin maintained. "One concern I've had and I'm dealing with is people see what's happening in Berkeley, and it's reported in newspapers and on television and they make the leap and assume this is happening [everywhere else]. Campuses are on fire all over the country."

Not so, he said.

"It remains to be seen whether or not things happening here will spread to other parts of the country or if there are some uniquely charged issues here. But there's no place else where things are as problematic."

According to Rubin, only Concordia College in Montreal is home to an anti-Israel movement as well entrenched as those at U.C. Davis, San Francisco State University and, especially, at U.C. Berkeley.

"They don't have a Hillel building at Concordia, so they haven't been able to vandalize it like they did at Berkeley," said Rubin with a roll of his eyes.

In response to the explosion of anti-Israel activity, Hillel has begun to "gear up" on the national level.

The organization's Washington, D.C. office has added three full-time staffers to deal only with campus affairs and provide materials and pro-Israel speakers to campuses across the nation.

Groups of Jewish student leaders have traveled to Israel to take part in advocacy workshops, and several Hillels have been given direct grants to help with their needs.

A challenge almost as great as helping Jewish students with Israel advocacy, is keeping the campus organization about more than just Israel advocacy, Rubin said.

"I don't want to leave the impression that we're like Brigadoon, only surfacing when the Arab-Israeli conflict reaches fever pitch," he said with a laugh. "Obviously, we're in crisis now, it's a wartime situation. But Hillel is about much more: It's about Jewish identity, it's about a large range of interests students have." This includes community service programs, Shabbat events, and art and cultural programs.

Rubin is also making a major push to expand into South America. Hillel's initial South American foray, a center in Montevideo, Uruguay, has been running for more than a year now. Hillels in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina, are in the works.

Spreading Jewish centers to the far reaches of the globe is nothing new. In the past seven years, 28 Hillels have popped up in the former Soviet Union.

While many Latin American Jewish communities are in dire straits, Rubin thinks a Hillel is the first step in making sure the nations retain a Jewish community.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.