Responding to Anti-Israel Hate with Love

Barrie Skalsky, a junior studying at the University of Houston, writes about how pro-Israel students are responding to anti-Israel hate

Anti-Israel sentiment is a constant challenge for Jewish and pro-Israel students on the University of Houston (UH) campus. I’ve had many moments of insecurity about sharing my religious identity or political beliefs in classrooms and in social settings. I won’t wear Hebrew letters on t-shirts or Israel buttons on my backpack. I struggle with telling people I’m involved in Hillel and what that means, or that my favorite place to visit is Israel because I don’t know how they’ll react.

While dealing with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment is a daily battle, its pinnacle is “Israeli Apartheid Week.” This weeklong demonstration takes place in the center of campus, where members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hold signs proclaiming, “Make Israel Palestine Again” and “The IDF is a terrorist organization.” They shout, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” They build a giant “apartheid wall” containing images and quotes about Israel being anti-black as well as other misconceptions driven by intersectionality, the phenomenon in which pro-Palestinian activists recruit minorities to join their cause.

SJP members also hold signs next to pro-Israel students with arrows saying, “They occupied and colonized our land and now they are occupying our space here on campus. Shame on them!” Not only are they making false allegations about Israel, but they’re directly targeting my friends and me.

In response to Israeli Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel students at UH work together to share a message of love to our community. Our efforts are strongly supported by Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Houston Hillel, Nofar Salman — one of hundreds of Israeli emissaries who serve for one to three years on university campuses around the world. Their goal is to empower student leadership and create Israel-engaged campuses. >

Ever since Nofar came to UH, the environment on campus has significantly improved for pro-Israel students. She has helped us get motivated and organized to host more educational and cultural programs about Israel. Perhaps her greatest strength is relationship-building — her dynamic personality alone attracts higher attendance at pro-Israel events. I’m so thankful that Nofar is in Houston to help educate the community.

For Israeli Apartheid Week — which actually lasts three weeks long on campuses worldwide, from March 18 to April 8 this year — the pro-Israel student group that I helped launch at UH, Coogs for Israel, has come up with programs to teach our campus about the Jewish state. Our plan is to continue to reach a wide audience by organizing tables with educational resources about Israel in different parts of campus. We’re also hosting Reservists on Duty, an organization that sends IDF soldiers to college campuses as guest speakers to help educate students specifically in response to events like Israeli Apartheid Week.

As a Jewish student who loves Israel, Israeli Apartheid Week shakes me to my core. To watch a group of fellow students, people who should embody tolerance and acceptance on a campus that prides itself on diversity, scream at you to “go home” is an experience I don’t wish upon anyone. I’d never experienced anti-Semitism like this before college. I never imagined this would be my reality. I never thought I’d be using my free time to plan pro-Israel demonstrations to counter Israeli Apartheid Week.

Yet as pro-Israel student advocates, our goal is to have meaningful conversations with people who might not have significant knowledge or awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And during these educational efforts, we stand directly next to SJP’s Israeli Apartheid Week demonstrations — to model for our campus what a peaceful approach to advocacy looks like, as opposed to the confrontational approach of the anti-Israel activists. We want to start a genuine dialogue about Israel, bringing together students of varying backgrounds and views in an environment of mutual respect. We believe in education, not intimidation.

A lot of people ask me why I spend so much of my time planning and participating in pro-Israel events during a time when Israel is so often the enemy on campus. My friends see how emotionally and physically drained I am at the end of each day.

And they are right. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to speak up for what you believe in. I know that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland of Israel. It isn’t my job to solve the conflict in the Middle East. But my goal is to create a safe space on campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students.         

Barrie Skalsky, a junior studying at the University of Houston, is the student president of Houston Hillel and a founding member of Coogs for Israel.

04 Apr 2019 / 28 Adar II 5779 0
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