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Merrick Jewish Centre tackles anti-semitism on campus

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The Anti-Defamation League last year announced a 57-percent increase in anti-Semitic bias incidents in the United States over those reported in 2016. According to many Jewish and pro-Israel activists, the wave of bias is flaring up notably on college campuses, often coinciding with a renewed student interest in Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (see sidebar).

The Merrick Jewish Centre sought to open a conversation on Feb. 10 with Jewish high school students, their families and the larger community, about the kind of challenges or bias they may face when they head to college.

“We wanted to have some learning for, really, our teenage demographic,” said Rabbi Jack Dermer. “We wanted to make the students who are now going into college in the next couple of years aware of this growing trend of both anti-Zionism, as well as anti-Semitism.”

The response was tremendous, according to MJC event organizer Jodi Turk-Goldberg. “We had an unprecedented number of RSVPs,” she said.

Dermer said that the sanctuary was filled with teens and their families, who were given an overview of the issues college students and activists Ofir Dayan, Dalia Zagher and Joshua Nierenberg have faced.

The students “haven’t just hidden in their dorm rooms,” Dermer said, but have formed campus groups to respond to incidents including swastikas drawn on dorm room doors and fake “eviction notices” slipped under students’ doors accusing them of being “responsible for the eviction of the Palestinian people,” just because of their Jewish heritage.

“It’s been going on for years, but there has been certainly a rise,” Dermer said, “and it’s extremely concerning because it’s beyond just whether you support the State of Israel, and now it’s just an attack on Jewish students.”

The BDS movement — as well as debate over who is at fault in the decades-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the continued encroachment of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories — is fraught with linguistic perils. As illustrated last week, when congressional politics exploded with outrage over a freshman congresswoman’s words, criticism of U.S. policy or Israeli government actions can be easily perceived as anti-Semitic.

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim and former Somali refugee, decried the influence of lobbyists working on behalf of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee to advance the interests of the Israeli government in U.S. policy. She used lyrics from a 1997 hip-hop song to insinuate that much of the congressional support for Israel is bought by lobbying money. Her comments were read as advancing age-old anti-Semitic tropes that paint Jews as moneyed manipulators pulling the world’s strings behind the scenes.

Omar and her defenders maintained that she was merely pointing out the obvious — that AIPAC, like other lobbying groups hold an outsized influence on congressional decisions because of the financial support they offer politicians. Still, Omar later apologized.

Dermer said that there is room to criticize the actions of the Israeli government, but that there were clear undertones of anti-Semitism and denial of Israel’s right to exist as a state.

“The big political issue is BDS — pretending Israel doesn’t even exist and boycotting it,” he said. “Our stance is that’s inappropriate. We don’t think it’s helpful for anyone. We don’t think it helps the situation at all.”

“Israel is a state like any other state,” he continued, “and it’s not perfect. There’s certainly room to have the dialogue about Israel that’s not completely one-sided, that’s open to discussing the things that Israel does that are less than perfect. But, that said, the belief that Israel has no right to exist, we reject wholeheartedly, with less discussion.”

Dayan, Zagher and Nierenberg are members of Students and Parents Against Campus Anti-Semitism, and allege that they have been victims or witnesses of bias incidents on the campuses of Columbia University and Long Island University.

Dayan, 24, daughter of the Israel Consul General in New York, told the New York Post last year that she has been harassed and threatened by members of the national activist organization Students for Justice in Palestine, which has a Columbia chapter. Dermer said that SJP often holds protests while pro-Israel student groups are holding Holocaust Remembrance Day events.

“In general, very often, anti-Israel protests really strike at home,” he said. “It’s completely inappropriate … and it can be really terrifying for these students.”

However, Aya Salem, a member of SJP’s Columbia chapter, said last week that the group is active in fighting discrimination in all forms — including anti-Semitism — and that critics such as SPACA and Students Supporting Israel unfairly weaponize the concept of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israeli policies.

“These are the people who are actually fighting for anyone on campus who’s experiencing discrimination,” Salem said, adding that groups like SPACA and SSI maintain “blacklist”-like websites with contact and social media information of students who protest for Palestinian rights. People can and do lose jobs because of being listed on the sites, Salem said.

Many pro-Israel groups on U.S. campuses claim to be grassroots, but are substantially funded by the Israeli political establishment, Salem added, and students claiming anti-Semitism on the part of pro-Palestinian rights demonstrators might be surprised to see that they are among the first to defend a Jewish student being discriminated against.

“It shows that some of these people aren’t really involved in any struggle,” Salem said. “They show up and use [anti-Semitism] to try and smear the people who’ve been doing the work this whole time.”

Dermer said that the Jewish Centre just wanted students to be prepared, and to be “armed with the facts,” rather than being blindsided by Palestinian rights protests, or believing that the movement is a “cool and progressive cause when it’s anything but.”

“So often the people who are detracting from the legitimacy of the State of Israel are people who have never been there, and who are repeating stuff from spurious news sources, stuff that’s blown out of proportion,” he said. “When you look at the facts on the ground, the discussion takes a different turn. We do want to arm them with the facts, but also with a love of the country … that Israel can play a key role in our religious lives; not just the facts about it, but also connected to it on a more visceral level.”