In March 2023, a small but mighty group of Jewish high schoolers from the youth group Club Z challenged the annual and deceptive event known as “Israel Apartheid Week” at the University of California, Berkeley. The fraudulent campaign organized by the anti-Israel campus group “Bears for Palestine,” included daily inflammatory events defaming Israel, culminating with the construction of an “apartheid wall” on the final day.
While the organizers repeatedly tried to silence anyone who pushed back against their dishonest narrative, Jewish youth activists showed that with enough determination, one could ensure the truth is heard and empower local students with facts.
Among the events were those that falsely demonized Israel for the supposed crime of “greenwashing” (the practice of highlighting a country’s environmentalism to distract from alleged human rights abuses) and a screening of the widely maligned film, “Farha,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s director. Other events included defamatory workshops titled “Apartheid: The Matrix of Control” and “Youth: The Yearn For Return.”
Club Z students and alumni attended the events, listened carefully, and asked questions intelligently and cordially. Our well-trained teenage activists were excited about the opportunity to discuss facts and the reality of Israel with other students and engage in a productive dialogue.
Unfortunately, Bears for Palestine and their allies were uninterested in conducting a civilized conversation with our students about the Jewish state or the Arab-Israeli conflict – a common theme at campus apartheid weeks across the US. After receiving pointed yet respectful pushback, the organizers hid the locations of subsequent events and refused to engage in honest discussion. Apparently, the mere thought of having to respond to tough questions was enough to send the group into hiding. If that’s not an unintentional indictment of their views, what is?
An example of such pushback was heard during a lecture titled “Apartheid: The Matrix of Control.” Bears for Palestine’s speaker shared how difficult it is for Palestinians to receive permits to leave and enter Israel, explaining that they must travel through Jordan or Egypt. A high school senior, our Club Z fellow, then asked if Jordan also requires permits to travel, to which the speaker reluctantly replied yes. Every country requires proper documentation whenever exiting or entering its territory, not just Israel. However, the speaker was trying to demonize Israel for a universal practice.
In another instance, one of our staff members asked Bears for Palestine how it envisioned a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their response: the so-called Palestinian Right of Return, a euphemism for those whose preferred solution is no Jewish state at all.
Clearly upset for exposing their lies, Bears for Palestine started engaging in intimidation tactics. Their organizers sat directly behind our students and staff, looking over their shoulders and in raised voices, demanded that they not take any pictures – or delete the ones they had – because these were “private” events. However, UC Berkeley is a public university, and all events were advertised as open to the public. What exactly did Bears for Palestine have to hide? And in typically hypocritical fashion, some members of Bears for Palestine followed and even photographed Club Z students as they walked to their parked cars to go home, despite the organizers being adamantly opposed to photographing the events.
On the last day of the Jew-hatred-filled week, one of our alumni made a last-ditch effort to conduct a dialogue with Bears for Palestine. He held a sign that read, “Come have a conversation with us,” and approached Bears for Palestine while its members constructed their makeshift wall. The group replied, “We don’t talk to Zionists. We don’t feel safe talking to you.”
Despite Bears for Palestine’s refusal to speak with Club Z, our Zionist high school students and educators engaged with dozens of students and onlookers, sharing essential information about Israel as a Jewish State, explaining how Hamas and the Palestinian Authority oppress their people and discussed other topics rarely heard at Berkeley.
Anyone who experiences hate towards Jews and Zionists on college campuses knows that antisemitism on campus thrives when the antisemites feel there are no consequences or pushback against their hate. Our teens, who will soon be college students, learned critical lessons and now have a better understanding of what they might face when they go to college and, more importantly, how to handle the Jew-haters on their own campuses.
Jewish and pro-Israel activists in high schools and college campuses are at the
forefront when it comes to fighting against Jew hatred - whether it’s called antisemitism or antizionism. They understand that this is exactly the same virus, and the only way to win is by actually standing up to it every time it happens.
Masha Merkulova is the founder and executive director of Club Z, a US-based organization for Jewish teens. Club Z’s mission is to create a network of educated and articulate activists with a commitment to Zionism who advocate for Israel and the Jewish people.