College students have important opportunity to reclaim Jewish narrative

We still face challenges and confrontations from those who oppose any form of dialogue or compromise, whether on campus or in the Middle East.

By SARAH TAGGER
August 16, 2016 21:27
3 minute read.
Archaeological dig near Beit Shemesh

The site of an archaeological dig near Beit Shemesh. (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

 
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The clock struck 8 a.m., marking my fourteenth hour in the meeting room. I was traumatized and exhausted; a first-year student at University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), feeling overwhelmingly obligated to spend my precious study time defending my identity. My peers and I questioned what would happen to our campus if we lost this vote.

Our student government was debating a resolution to divest from companies doing business with Israel, driven by the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In practice, what seemed like a demand for economic pressure proved to be no more than a cover for an all-out attempt to turn the leaders of our student body against Israel and my community. The senate meeting centered around the vote was proof of this, as divestment supporters used the public forum as an opportunity to spread hate toward Israel and the Jewish people.

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We were ill-prepared to respond. Having every segment of our identities dissected before our eyes was grueling. Our 3,000-year-old connection to our land, our indigenous roots, our oppression and our struggle to overcome were destroyed, and our character tarnished.

We were slandered as “colonizers” and “white supremacists,” presented with demands and no space for conversation. The outcome seemed grim.

We have come a long way as a pro-Israel community since that night over four years ago.

We regrouped and defeated divestment that year, and every year since. We turned this challenge into an opportunity to put on more educational events, bring speakers to campus and collaborate with others. We focused on building better relationships with students and faculty; teaching and sharing Israel’s story and our connection to our historic homeland. Instead of sulking in the shadows of divestment, we decided to do everything we could to be proactive. To reclaim our narrative, tell our story, and not have it told for us. The experience elevated us, inspired us and encouraged us to learn, to teach, and to seek solutions.

However, our successes did not occur in a vacuum. Like the anti-Israel movement, we had help – our local Hillel was a stronghold of support that encouraged us to collaborate and form a strong community, and organizations like Stand- WithUs helped us to change the conversation on campus.

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And while we were building our confidence, our allies at other universities were too. As student activists we thrived in the opportunity to support one another and to grow together.

Collectively we encouraged the UC system to take a clear stance against anti-Zionism and racism against Jewish students, and prompted student governments to consider resolutions that tackle human rights issues on a global scale rather than as a pretext to discriminate against Israelis. These actions helped us push back against anti-Israel extremism on campus, and the status quo is changing. We are no longer the underdogs, but are rising to the occasion – passionately promoting a proactive approach instead of solely playing defense.

Yet as I graduated this past spring, I realized that these triumphs were fleeting and that there was no room to be complacent.

We still face challenges and confrontations from those who oppose any form of dialogue or compromise, whether on campus or in the Middle East. My motivation to improve this situation only increased post-college, when I realized that I had the potential to help other students just like myself. I now work for StandWithUs, an organization that wholeheartedly believes in education as the road to peace. As I transition from college to professional life, I could not be more excited to continue working with others in the pro-Israel movement to tell Israel’s story, overcome the challenges we all face, and build mutual understanding on campus and beyond.

The author is campus strategy coordinator for StandWithUs, a 15-year-old international Israel education organization.

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