Fighting for Israel on College Campuses

October 7, 2013

CAMERA’s Senior Campus Coordinator, Samantha Mandeles, recently wrote the following piece, a version of which appears in the Algemeiner, about the events that led her to her current position at CAMERA. While attending Hampshire College, Samantha was subjected to harassment, bullying and an overall hostile and anti-Israel atmosphere.

Fighting for Israel on College Campuses

It’s that time again.

Samantha Mandeles

Samantha Mandeles

In my office, September is one of the busiest months of the year.  My students, located all around North America, are returning to college.  Almost as soon as they arrive on campus, the stories start pouring into my inbox. From UC Berkeley to Smith College, from the University of Central Florida to Arizona State, from Cornell to Tulane, my students monitor the Israeli affairs throughout their campus communities.

The news is generally mixed.  Some students talk of the success and popularity of their Israel-activism groups, while others must immediately start fighting divestment initiatives in student government.  Every campus is different, but my students share a common goal: to educate their campuses on the facts about Israel, and to fight her demonization wherever it may be found.

Fighting the “Three D’s” of anti-Israel activism on a college campus is no easy task.  The opprobrium Israel and her supporters face in academic circles can be especially vicious and overwhelming, but as I tell my students, that is even more reason to stand strong against it.  My experience in college, marked by seemingly endless battles with anti-Israel detractors, illustrated that those who perpetuate lies should be opposed, and forcefully.

When I arrived at Hampshire College in the fall of 2006, I had just completed a year in Israel; I was tan, ebullient, and full of excitement for the semester ahead. It had not occurred to me that Hampshire’s name would soon become associated with some of the worst campus anti-Israel vitriol in the United States. HampshireCollege2

Hampshire, a selective, small, private liberal-arts college nestled in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, is a place where hatred of Israel was common, judged a socially-acceptable bigotry, and, in some cases, was required to be accepted in the local social hierarchy. Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (HSJP) was formed in 2006, when I was a freshman. During my first year, the group was not very active, and I took little notice, instead focusing on schoolwork. But, then, halfway through my sophomore year, SJP took off. The group staged an Israeli Apartheid Week, and built a mock wall on the main campus quad. They passed out propagandistic literature and accosted students on their way in and out of campus buildings, declaiming about Israel’s supposed war crimes.

With HSJP’s wall erected in front of the library, it could be seen from all directions, and students passed it on their way to and from class, inter-campus buses, and residential areas. The first time I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks in shock, disgusted at SJP’s egregious claims.  Spotting my open-mouthed incredulity and possibly mistaking it for benign interest, an SJP member approached me and said, “Hi, do you know anything about the Apartheid wall that Israel is building in the Occupied Territories of Palestine?”  Disturbed at the biased nature of his question, I pointedly replied, “Yes, I do, as matter of fact.  I know that it is not a wall made out of concrete.  Rather, most of it is simply a chain fence.  And I know that the barrier has nothing to do with Apartheid, but is about keeping Israeli citizens safe from Arab terror.” The student, with whom I had never spoken before, looked at me with one raised eyebrow, snorted, and said, “You must be pretty twisted to believe that shit.”  Then, he turned on his heel and strutted away, joining other SJPers who had heard the exchange.  They all actually pointed and laughed at me, drawing as much attention as possible; I was upset as I walked away.

That encounter certainly was not the last, nor the most severe I would have with the anti-Israel faction at Hampshire, but it was the most emotionally unsettling. It was my first taste of the closed-mindedness, the hostility, and the absolute refusal to engage in honest self-criticism that characterizes HSJP, and indeed, many other SJP factions around the country. It shattered my naiveté and introduced me to the fact that a cause that claims to champion justice and peace was fueled by hatred, bigotry, and social conformity.  It made me angry and determined to fight against the people at Hampshire who endorsed not only the persecution of Israel, but the mistreatment of their fellow students on behalf of “Palestine.”

Over the next few years, HSJP gained momentum and publicity as their behavior became increasingly incendiary. I detailed my observations of HSJP and my frustration with their nastiness in emails to members of the Hampshire faculty. I recounted some of the instances where I was bullied and called names—”racist,” “fascist,” or “crazy”—for supporting Israel. I reported how SJP members destroyed the fliers that I posted advertising for a pro-Israel rally I helped to plan, and how once, a fellow student told me that my love of Israel was helping to perpetuate genocide.

In October 2008, I attended a live screening of the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden on campus.  I was disgusted, though not surprised, that whenever either candidate mentioned a healthy relationship between Israel and the United States, the entire lecture hall erupted in jeering and booing. Earlier that school year, a Jewish, Zionist friend of mine was approached in the Hampshire cafeteria by a pair of SJPers, who, without any sort of provocation, began to loudly sing a Palestinian national song in her face. She told me that they followed her out of the dining hall, singing at her as loud as they could.

In 2009, Hampshire SJP members rose to a new level of mendacity. In February, HSJP erroneously claimed that Hampshire had become the first American college or university to divest from “the Occupation of Palestine,” and that the SJP instigated the “divestment.” The Hampshire Board of Trustees protested that the claim of divestment was incorrect, and that Hampshire’s investment portfolio continued to contain stocks from several Israeli companies. SJP still asserts that Hampshire divested its holdings in companies that “profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” In February 2010, SJP posted fliers around the Hampshire campus proclaiming the first anniversary and subsequent celebration of “SJP’s historic victory—Hampshire’s divestment from the Occupation of Palestine.”

Throughout 2008, 2009, and 2010, HSJP participated in anti-Israel demonstrations in Pioneer Valley town centers. Sometimes, they were helped along by SJP branches from the other schools in the area, and they also worked with community groups like the Western Mass Coalition for Palestine. At these rallies, members of these groups marched, wore keffiyehs, and chanted slogans advocating violence, like “Long live the Intifada!” I observed the working of a conformist hive mind; while SJP members scream and shout into megaphones, compete with one another to express outrage, and wax poetic about injustice, their loudly proclaimed commitment to justice and the equal treatment of others is hollow. They stop short of applying those values to those in their own community who would dare to disagree with their Manichean worldview.

HSJP proved this point when they drafted a petition that called for “solidarity” with the Irvine 11—the 11 UC Irvine students who were detained for planning the disruption of Michael Oren’s 2010 lecture. Predictably, HSJP used their solidarity petition as a method of distorting the issue at hand—from one of a blatant violation of UCI community norms to one of censorship and the deprivation of the Irvine students’ rights to free speech—though it was these very Irvine students who deprived Michael Oren of this same right.

Throughout my college career, I watched HSJP’s behavior with increasing dismay. Since there was no strong, proud, outspoken pro-Israel group at Hampshire College, I felt that I was mostly alone. In early 2009, a friend introduced me to the Student Alliance for Israel at UMass Amherst, and I started working with them to help plan a huge, proud, pro-Israel rally for peace on an Amherst green. I devoted hours to finding speakers, publicizing, and I wrote and delivered a speech at the event. The rally was a success, thanks in part to its co-sponsorship by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). CAMERA helped with publicity, and, more importantly, sent one of my favorite writers to speak —CAMERA Christian Media Analyst Dexter Van Zile. I felt buoyed by the success of the event, and SJP’s subsequent annoyance and protest made me determined to continue organizing.

To help learn how to combat anti-Israel falsehoods on campus, I decided to apply for CAMERA’s 2009 annual educational trip to Israel. I was accepted and spent 10 days that summer learning with the CAMERA team. During the trip, we met with representatives from MEMRI and the Sderot Media Center. We learned about the poisonous, hateful incitement against Israel, Jews, and the West as a whole, that blankets Arab and Muslim media outlets from Europe to Pakistan. We saw the hundreds of exploded Qassam rockets that Hamas and its allies have fired at Israeli civilians with the aim of murdering as many Jews as possible. We met with Israeli journalists and policymakers who work tirelessly to forge a more peaceful world for their children. My trip with CAMERA was tremendous, and it crystallized an idea generated by HSJP’s hate-mongering—that the facts support Israel and should be broadcast from the treetops.

I spent my final semesters at Hampshire researching and writing my undergraduate thesis, and trying to figure out how to transmit a strong, accurate pro-Israel point-of-view on campus. I decided to work with Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, founder of the organization Our Soldiers Speak, to bring his message to campus. Sgt Anthony would speak about what life is truly like as an Israeli soldier, educate students about the rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and show people why Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is necessary.

Sgt. Anthony’s event became a linchpin around which pro- and anti-Israel groups rallied. About 300 people attended the event, which then included the unfurling of flags, banners, and pre- and post- event chanting. Neutral Hampshire students attended, simply seeking to learn about a subject around which campus conversation seemed so distorted and emotionally charged. During the event, SJP and their friends from around the Valley disrupted Sgt. Anthony’s remarks, and stood to shout their usual falsehoods. Several times, these interruptions led to loud confrontations between them and frustrated Israel supporters. At one point, a Hampshire professor even threw his lot in with SJP, tossing a loud, disrespectful remark at a Hampshire Assistant Dean who was trying to restore order.

Ultimately, Sgt. Anthony overcame the distractions and finished delivering his talk in a Q and A session. His message was first that Israel (like any democratic, civil society) is imperfect and has areas in which it must improve. More importantly, Israel is a beacon of progressive values in a sea of oppression, and a manifestation of the long-needed ability of Jews to unite and defend ourselves. The pro-Israel students were inspired and educated, and those who came out of interest, without an agenda, heard ideas and facts rarely presented to a Hampshire College audience.

In spite of, and, in fact, because of their vociferous attempts to silence Sgt. Anthony, SJP demonstrated the truth of his message to the audience. HSJP members’ intolerance confirmed the claim that Israel is being marginalized and de-legitimized as a nation on campuses and in international fora, and showed that Israel’s defenders should be steadfast and strong. SJP’s theatrics demonstrated how jaundiced the campus discourse about Israel had become, and alienated otherwise neutral or even sympathetic students.  They appeared fatuous and puerile, their bullying revealing the noxious nature of their tactics.

My experience with SJP contributed heavily to the path I chose after graduating Hampshire.  I now work at CAMERA- I’m the Senior Campus Coordinator, and I’ve spent the last three years educating university students and helping them to stand up for Israel.

If HSJP strove to convert students to their way of thinking, then they achieved the opposite of their goal: by lying, heckling, and bullying, they succeeded not only in distancing me from their cause, but in making me into their staunch, determined, and active enemy. I doubt if I would have felt such a need to fight for Israel had SJP not antagonized me, and others like me. Their determination to put Israel’s advocates on the defensive made me determined to go on the offensive. Now, I go to work every morning and spend my day equipping college students with the facts.

The most important thing I have learned at CAMERA is to refuse to be meek and be quiet. Israel supporters on campus and elsewhere must show the world that we will “not go gentle into that good night.” CAMERA’s values—that Israel has the right to exist within secure and defensible borders, that falsehoods must always be confronted, and that lies must be exposed publicly—are my values.

As for the Hampshire SJP—really, I should thank them. HSJP members taught me that they are nothing more than bullies. That’s why I work at CAMERA; to help students understand that the only way to defeat them—to change hearts and minds—is stand-up for what is right, to refuse to be fooled by lies, or silenced by social pressure of conformism.

As a wise colleague of mine once said, “The moment you allow a falsehood to go unchallenged, you legitimize the purveyors’ ridiculous claims. You allow them to win without even having to lift a finger.” HSJP taught me the truly valuable lesson that is reinforced every day at CAMERA: that those of us who care about truth—about Israel—should never let them win.

Samantha Rose Mandeles is CAMERA’s Senior Campus Coordinator in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @DaughterofTsion

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