By Hannah Sharron, a University of Birmingham student
I wish that headline referred to one of the fantastic things on campus, like interfaith events, free wifi or Chaplaincy bagel lunches on a Wednesday. But it’s something much more frightening and threatening than that. It’s about the perception of Israel on campus.
Students are empowered by lecturers, tutors and mentors to believe that we can soar.
We can reach unprecedented heights and we can become leaders in the fields of medicine, science, journalism and politics, to name but a few.
Of course, this is exactly what universities ought to be telling the forerunners of the next generation.
But what happens when those same future leaders are misled and misinformed about Israel?
Perceptions of Israel on campus today will shape the perceptions of Israel in the minds of tomorrow’s leaders. It is especially damaging when vehemently anti-Israel voices are given a platform to spread their views, and to convince other students – who may be either indifferent or somewhat pro-Israel – of their validity.
When there is no strong voice to advocate for Israel on campus, it is little wonder that the anti-Israel influence resonates instead.
Powerful voices on campus have powerful impacts.
During her term in office, the University of Birmingham Guild of Students’ Vice President for Education 2013/2014 posted on her personal Facebook page derogatory comments about the IDF, the so-called ‘massacring of civilians’ in Gaza (during Operation Protective Edge) and photographs of demonstrations in Birmingham captioned ‘FREE FREE PALESTINE!’
She may be just one student, but she is certainly not isolated in her views.
Moreover, as a Vice President of the Guild of Students, she has a powerful voice on campus.
This is worrying, because when the Vice President for Education herself is poorly educated about Israel, it has a ripple effect.
Her influence across the student body is wide, and when others jump on her bandwagon, we begin to see a very real issue.
Her vehement opposition in a post about a fellow student joining the IDF received 22 ‘likes’, one from a girl in my tutor group.
The photograph of a pro-Gaza demonstration received 45 ‘likes’, many from fellow students. Evidently the Vice President for Education has a loud voice, but others share her views.
When people stand against Israel, we must respond. No matter how strong the pro-Israel case is, we cannot make it heard if antagonists drown us out. We cannot sustain support for Israel at university if we do not encourage its growth.
We must recognise, however, that challenging the demonisation of Israel on campus is not the sole responsibility of JSoc. Anti-Zionists and anti-Semites equate Judaism and Zionism, or Jews and Israelis. We must not make the same mistake ourselves.
Israel has non-Jewish friends, too – I can vouch for this personally, as many of my course friends tell me that they appreciate Israel’s right to exist and duty to defend herself. We must take advantage of this in the same way that Palestinian societies do not limit their membership to a single religion.
If we want to combat anti-Israel activism by these societies, we need a united front for Israel on campus. It must be open to all friends of Israel, regardless of religion. It needs to be proactive, not just reactive. It needs to be united across the country, and supported by other pro-Israel organisations external to universities.
Where possible, we must become leaders outside of the Jewish bubble on campus. It is fantastic and admirable to be on the JSoc committee, but with people like the girl mentioned earlier taking the lead in our Student Unions, we need to aim higher. We need to ensure that the pro-Israel voice is heard on every level across campus – in Student Unions, a range of societies, and by engaging with coursemates in everyday discussion.
We must stop the spread of vicious anti-Israel sentiment in our universities. It is our responsibility to do so before it becomes too late. If we ignore these seeds being sown in the minds of tomorrow’s leaders, they will spread out and today’s students will carry a hatred of Israel into the ‘real world’ when they graduate.
If Israel is rejected and isolated by the leaders of the next generation, the consequences do not bear thinking about.
Her advances in medicine, technology and agriculture will flounder without support. Tourism will decrease. International relations, too, are at risk.
Students in university today are future political, educational and financial leaders of this country, and their ideas and opinions are being shaped now. We must ensure that they support, respect and appreciate Israel.
They do not have to support every action taken by Israel – even the most ardent Zionist can criticise Israel.
But we must make sure that they can see Israel clearly, without the misinformation provided by haters on campus.
I recognise this isn’t an easy task, but the alternative is not one that I want to see.
To adapt a quote Edmund Burke: ‘all it will take for the anti-Israel activists to succeed is for the pro-Israel voices to remain silent.’
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