Protests against Israel can incite antisemitism

Jordan Shenhar

In 1938, Nazi soldiers marched into my grandfather's village in rural Austria and forcibly took control of his parents' small linens shop. At the time, no country in the world was accepting Jewish refugees from Europe, and with their property confiscated, his family could not afford to travel far or even bribe their way to temporary safety. Shortly thereafter, they fled their home in the dead of night, eventually working their way toward a port in Italy that secretly funneled them to Haifa.

My family's story isn't unique within the UT community. Some have grandparents who were airlifted out of refugee camps in Yemen by the Israeli government in the face of widespread pogroms. Others’ parents slipped out from under the Iron Curtain to avoid being killed for holding on to their Jewish customs. And whether they were born overseas or in the U.S. like me, Israel's existence as a safe haven for their ancestors is the only reason they are here today.

Due in large part to my own ancestry, I sympathize with the stateless families of UT's Palestinian students. But there are many ways to support Palestinian statehood without undermining Israel’s. It’s especially tragic, then, that the group instead chooses to employ dehumanizing and racially charged language against its fellow students. Within the past year, a PSC member has described Israeli Jews as a “non-essential group” of “Europeanized (and yet ancient) others,” despite the fact that most of them are the descendents of refugees expelled from Middle Eastern and African countries. Another PSC member has promoted another Intifada, which would result in violence against Israeli civilians. They have targeted Texas Hillel, a Jewish religious center, as a “partisan of privilege,”  mirroring the prominent trope that Jews are a wealthy, powerful collective. And, most troublingly, they have repeated the twisted canard that Jewish refugees conspired with the Nazi regime that many of them, like my grandfather, fled during World War II.

These overtones create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that has befallen Jewish students on campuses around the world. At Stanford and UCLA, two schools which passed anti-Israel resolutions last year, Jewish candidates for student government positions were questioned about whether their background would impede their ability to perform their duties. A student government representative at UC-Santa Cruz was told to abstain from a vote because of his “Jewish agenda.” Anti-Israel activists at South Africa’s Durban University of Technology, for their part, have demanded that all Jewish students de-register from the school.

It's no surprise, then, that according to a Brandeis University study, almost 75 percent of Jewish students have experienced anti-Semitism on campus. Chemical engineering freshman Omer Levy is one of them.

“It’s hostile to be a Jew in this world, and I don’t think people are sympathizing with the Jewish community here,” Levy said. “It’s not just anti-Israel sentiment, but a lot of anti-Semitism as well.”

Mechanical engineering sophomore Michael Simozar said he received multiple online threats for his involvement with Texans for Israel and says that he was shouted down by anti-Israel activists while reading the names of Holocaust victims aloud on Remembrance Day. Simozar believes that anti-Israel activism often overlaps with outright anti-Semitism.

“Zionism is the idea of creating a Jewish state,” Simozar said. “So when PSC uses the term ‘Zionist’ inflammatorily, they are insinuating that it is a bad thing to believe there should be a Jewish state.”

PSC is adamant about preserving a safe campus climate for its members, and it would be awful if any of the group’s activists have experienced danger or discomfort in response to their protest last week. But of the 1,092 hate crimes relating to religious bias reported to the FBI in 2014, attacks against Jews comprised a startling 58.2 percent, and European synagogues are shutting down due to threats against worshippers. By the rhetoric of the objections against the State of Israel, a national homeland, Jewish students are forced to live in the kind of dangerous environment protesters fear themselves.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics junior from Westport, Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @jshenhar.