Quarry Plaza at UC Santa Cruz (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Quarry Plaza at UC Santa Cruz (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

You’re a liberal college student. Yes, you can support Israel.

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A year ago, I faced the challenge of building a pro-Israel community on a college campus without strong anti-Israel sentiment to counter.

With Covid-19 sweeping the nation, both sides had quieted down and the sense of urgency had tapered off. Students in Santa Cruz, where I serve as a Jewish Agency shaliach (Israeli emissary), were more concerned with surviving online learning during a pandemic rather than advocating for or against a country they probably had never visited.

“Any mention of the Jewish state elicits a typical reaction of, ‘I’d rather not talk about it,’” I wrote in J. on Nov. 30, 2020.

Yet six months later, in May 2021, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated to its most violent state in years. Student government bodies across the U.S., including at UC Santa Cruz, released vociferous and imbalanced statements condemning Israel and reaffirming their endorsement of the BDS movement.

With life switching to online mode almost entirely, Jewish students were faced with an unprecedented outpouring of anti-Zionist and antisemitic content shared by their peers. Showing solidarity with the Palestinians took the form of hateful infographics on social media, causing many online spaces to become hostile for Jews. Students felt like they were being put on trial for any expression of Jewish, Zionist or Israeli identity.

But that phenomenon was not limited to the virtual world.

Regardless of their views on the conflict, Jewish individuals were physically harassed and synagogues were vandalized, and antisemitism spiked on college campuses across the country.

One thing became very clear: When Israel is under attack, nowhere is completely safe for Jews.

Now in my third year as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Santa Cruz Hillel, I continue to deal with the aftermath of last spring’s events, especially as schools increasingly reopen for in-person campus life. Students inform me that the barrages of online attacks on Israel made them highly uncomfortable and encouraged them to become more involved in activism on campus.

However, opinions that challenge the common perception of Israel as a “white, aggressive, colonizing oppressor” are not well received in most progressive spaces outside the Jewish community. Zionist students feel torn between seemingly — but not actually — conflicting ideologies.

Through thousands of interactions with undergraduate students over the last year, I have come to realize what liberal Jewish students are lacking, and it is not further education on the conflict. While they should aim for an A in their classes, what they actually need here are three Cs: clarity, confidence and community.

Clarity

Israel advocates often feel like they have accomplished their goal when, after a learning session or a meaningful conversation, students say they now realize how complicated the conflict is. Recognizing the complexity is necessary, but is it enough?

The issues should be explained and simplified, not made more difficult. It should make sense, not seem overwhelming. Rather than accepting their indifference or feeling lost, we must help students form an opinion, call out fallacies, and encourage them to determine exactly what is right and what is wrong in their eyes.

Confidence

Students in progressive spaces are terrified of voicing an alternative social justice

narrative that supports Israeli and Palestinian citizens. They would rather stay silent and avoid confrontation if they feel like they do not have enough knowledge to back up their opinions. Meanwhile, supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel have no problem yelling words they can barely pronounce about places where they have never been. They are absolutely convinced they are correct, and this passion helps them recruit various allies, including some Jews.

Students will never have all the knowledge they need. But that should not make them feel like they are on the wrong side of history, or keep them from standing up to antisemitism. We must cultivate their courage to speak up with the same passion, even at the risk of upsetting others. Their voices must not be silenced.

Community

When Instagram was rife with anti-Israel posts, students expressed to me their frustration with seeing all their friends from home subscribe to the same propaganda. Most of my social network is made up of friends and family from Israel, but for my students it was a different game: They were standing alone in their private virtual battlefield, which made it that much harder to speak up.

Platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow us to share our message by supporting others when we are uncomfortable using our own voice. We must help students grow their Jewish and Zionist networks so they can see they are not alone, and that they have a home when the social media feed gets rough.

Now more than ever, we need to bring them together physically, but also connect them online. We should introduce them to relevant influencers or pages with the kind of content that speaks to them, reminding them that they are a part of a large and diverse community.

Despite the hurdles that the pro-Israel community on campus faced over the last 12 months, or perhaps because of those hurdles, we are beginning to witness positive change. Students want to hone their understanding of the conflict, boost their confidence in the face of adversity and connect with likeminded people in order to lift each other up.

It is my honor to walk this path with such brave individuals, and together build a stronger community that will continue to flourish.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Elior Amar
Elior Amar

Elior Amar is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Santa Cruz Hillel.