From the Frontlines: Israel Activism on Campus

Baker Hall at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Colleges work hard to support their various student populations — but Jewish and pro-Israel students often don’t receive this consideration. As a pro-Israel activist at UMass Amherst, I faced not only alienation, but outright discrimination. Zionist students, alumni, and campus organizations must unite and take action to create a more welcoming climate for future and current Jewish students.

I have been a proud defender of Israel since becoming involved with StandWithUs, an Israel education organization, in high school. When I entered UMass Amherst, I worked hard to educate uninformed students about Israel and to counteract the misinformation being disseminated by other sources.

The pro-Israel community — which included students of all religions and backgrounds — did not try to “cancel” antisemitic speakers and events, but to provide a cogent explanation of why their views are problematic. We also organized alternative programming to coincide with anti-Israel events, presenting students with a choice between a dogmatic, deceptive hate-fest, or an event encouraging dialogue.

But supporting Israel on campus was not easy.

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Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) recently released a report listing some of the most egregious antisemitic and anti-Zionist campus incidents from the last three years; three of those incidents occurred at UMass Amherst while I was there. During my sophomore year, for example, a communications professor included blatantly anti-Israel questions on his final exam. My junior year, the school hosted an interdepartmental event focused on BDS and anti-Israel content. And in my senior year, vandals defaced the Hillel building with the word “Palestine” on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Other incidents did not make the news. As a sophomore, I ran for vice president of my student government. An email circulated calling me racist and Islamophobic because of my affiliation with StandWithUs. When I publicized the email on various Facebook groups, including a UMass group, people I had never met called me a baby killer, among other things. Ultimately, we lost the election. Although it is impossible to know why, the vice president on the ticket that won was involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, and that ticket supported the person who sent the hateful email about me.

The Student Government Association (SGA) displayed its bias against Israel on other occasions as well. Once, the Student Alliance for Israel invited former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to speak. When I approached SGA for “emergency funding” to help defray an unexpected cost, it was immediately denied; I suspect it would have been granted to any other group making a similar request.

While some Jewish students may have remained blissfully unaware of any antisemitic incidents transpiring on campus, the student community involved in Jewish life on campus found them deeply troubling. We felt both the threat and the pain of the lies being spread not only about Israel, but about the Jewish people. We felt attacked from every side.

When incidents occurred, the administration did what they could to reassure Jewish students. But the university should take a more proactive approach, and provide more resources to faculty and staff to educate themselves about Israel. Schools need to host more Israel education events, instead of shying away from the controversy, and promote them to the whole university.

UMass Amherst — and other universities — should also adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, as the ACF report recommends. When anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents do occur, the definition can help clarify whether they fall under the umbrella of antisemitism, and consequently, how they should be addressed.

Most universities will not take these steps of their own volition. Alumni can be a powerful voice in preventing and addressing antisemitism on campus, especially when they unite through an organization like Alums for Campus Fairness. By connecting with important stakeholders, alumni can play a critical role in shaping a coordinated approach to make campuses safer and more welcoming for future Jewish students.

While UMass Amherst will always be dear to me, the anti-Israel experiences I had there will always be a blot on my college experience. Now that I have graduated, I continue to work with StandWithUs as an employee, and with ACF as the UMass Amherst chapter leader. Together, we can ensure that students receive an authentic education, and make universities places of nuanced discourse dedicated to the pursuit of truth.

Stephanie Margolis is an alumna of UMass Amherst (’20) and the New England High School Coordinator at StandWithUs. Stephanie also leads Alums for Campus Fairness’ UMass Amherst chapter.

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