Congratulations, new college freshmen! Welcome to what will undoubtedly be some of the most exciting years of your life. Get ready to meet new people, learn things that fascinate you, and figure out who you are and who you want to be.
If you’re Jewish, you should probably also prepare yourself for the various forms of anti-Israel sentiment, and maybe even anti-Semitism, you’re likely to encounter on your new college campus.
In the past year alone, as a Jewish student at McGill University in Montreal, I’ve been called a “Zionist b—-.” I’ve been told several times that Jews haven’t suffered (never mind the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms and centuries of violence and marginalization leading up to the Holocaust). I’ve seen my friends mocked for their Judaism in crude, hateful language on popular anonymous social media platforms. When I asked if a student publication would write about instances of anti-Semitism on campus in its end-of-year issue, I was told that those instances were already covered in “mainstream Zionist media.”
By no means do I defend every action of the Israeli government, but Israel as a Jewish homeland plays an integral role in my identity. I love Israel and firmly believe in its right to exist, just as I believe in a Palestinian state. I also consider myself a liberal and care deeply about a range of injustices, including gender inequality, homophobia and the racial opportunity gap.
Yet so many of my liberal peers, with whom I share so much common ground, have actively excluded Jewish students from their social-justice organizations. The activist community’s demonization of Israel is apparent again and again in my interactions on campus. These clubs propagate the idea that Zionism underpins many of the world’s problems, as well as claim that Jews have no right to feel connected to Israel and that any Jew who does feel a connection to his or her religious homeland is part of the problem. Despite many of our shared values, my Jewish peers’ and my attempts to reach out to these groups have often been dismissed.
As you begin your journey as a Jewish college student, you may find that the students involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, which is on the rise on campuses across North America, are the same students who are active in feminist collectives, LGBT groups, environmental organizations and anti-racism clubs. As a Zionist, this can be extremely disheartening — why should you be alienated from a cause because you believe Israel has a right to exist?
The years to come will be challenging for you. Whether it’s fighting BDS, coming under attack in class discussions or being made to feel unwelcome in an activist group, your experience as a Zionist at school won’t be simple. But you should still get involved with the causes you care about. You are entitled to that as much as anyone else, and you might be able to build a very important bridge. Don’t abandon your causes just because some of the people involved with them condemn Israel. And don’t be afraid to speak up to peers, professors and community members. You never know where you’re going to find an ally, and they won’t know where to find you unless you’re vocal about what you’re doing.
At McGill, I and a group of students, both Jewish and not Jewish, have taken it upon ourselves to educate our peers about the discrimination that Jews face. When I moved into my dorm for my first year, I participated in a three-hour workshop about creating a safe space on campus for everyone. I mentioned a time that I was singled out for being Jewish — and the person in charge of the workshop told me that while I might be oppressed because I am female, “being Jewish didn’t constitute the grounds for systematic oppression.” That lack of knowledge of centuries of global history is stunning, and it has to change. My friends and I are dedicated to ending bigotry in all its forms — and that includes clueless or careless anti-Semitism.
Despite the frustrations, I know that your campus will also be a wonderful place to strengthen your Jewish identity and find community. I made some of my best friends and met brilliant professors as I attempted to tackle these issues. Despite the roadblocks that you will experience along the way, the work that you do on your campus will undoubtedly create positive change.
B’hatzlacha — best of luck — and n’sia tova — enjoy the journey!
Molly Harris is beginning her third year at McGill University.