I recently had the upmost pleasure of spending a few days at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Miserable weather in New York made a tremendous effort to keep me from flying to California, but somehow I made it to beautiful Isla Vista, nestled between the beautiful Santa Ynez Mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
As a former soldier of the Israel Defense Forces, I wanted to aid the pro-Israel student community in California answer any questions students had concerning Israel and its military, and encourage them to stand up for Israel on campus. I was happy to see a vibrant interest regarding Israel amongst students at UCSB, and a general willingness by members of Jewish organizations, like Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi, to help the Jewish state, even if from 9,000 miles away.
The pro-Israel community at UCSB takes a positive initiative when it comes to Israel on campus. While it prefers to keep Israel out of campus politics, it does not hesitate to establish relationships with members of the student government in order to counter the political activity of anti-Israel groups.
While the situation at UCSB is encouraging, this is only because the larger picture in California is much bleaker. In fact, with the single exception of Santa Barbara, a student government at every University of California school (undergraduate, graduate or both) has voted to divest from the State of Israel. The University of California has officially refused to boycott Israel, so the votes for divestment amongst student governments are merely symbolic. But symbols can be powerful. What began at lesser-known schools such as UC Irvine has come to affect world-famous institutions such as UCLA, whose undergraduate student government voted in overwhelming fashion to divest from Israel this past November. Just last week, UC Davis voted to divest from Israel, as many of those behind the effort shouted “Allahu Akhbar” at pro-Israel students present.
While most concerned supporters of Israel know why these anti-Israel efforts on campus are an affront to true liberalism, there are many who are not treating the current trend as a serious problem. Many continue to insist that the BDS movement is overrated and unorganized, and highlight that it is yet to do noticeable damage to the Israeli economy. But the last thing we should be worried about is overestimating anti-Israel movements on American campuses. The fact that these efforts have a marginal effect today does not discount the possibility of horrific long-term consequences, and the fact that California is a strong hub for the anti-Israel movement should concern us all. The state of California alone contains 12% of the U.S. population, and its universities host many of tomorrow’s prospective leaders and politically active citizens. If Israel-curious students on campus do not see a determined and consistent pro-Israel response, they may very well form an opinion from an “apartheid wall” set up on the quad.
There is no reason to wait for this to become an existential threat. Several leaders of Jewish life on UC campuses have informed me that approximately 30% of students involved in Jewish life feel extremely intimidated, and are scared to let people know they are Jewish, let alone pro-Israel. As a result, many Jewish organizations on campuses have reacted quite sheepishly at moments when the exact opposite kind of reaction is most needed. We need to both encourage pro-Israel students to stand up against BDS and the like, and to provide them with all the tools necessary to do so. We need to nip this problem in the bud, and confront it with everything we’ve got.
By Josh Warlit