Why Jewish Life on University Campuses Continues to Thrive
By Ilan Preskovsky
It’s no secret that the past few years have not always been easy on Jewish students on university campuses, both in South Africa and abroad. Organisations like BDS (the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement against Israel), and its newly-minted South African variety, Africa for Palestine (A4P), have made universities a central target for their campaign to de-legitimise Israel and any Jewish claims on the land. For all that BDS and its associates insist that they’re a non-violent movement merely looking to promote peace in the region and advocating for the rights of Palestinians, their true goals and their actual methods have made it increasingly difficult for Jewish students to feel accepted and safe on university campuses – especially those who have the audacity to support the only country in the world where Jews are in charge of their own destiny.
The insidious duplicity of BDS comes from two fronts – and both directly affect Jewish university students.
First, their claim that they use academia as a means of creating a greater dialogue about the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a bald-faced lie that does the precise opposite. Their sole purpose on academic campuses is not to create dialogue, but to shut it down. Rather than recognising the complexities of the situation, their sole aim is to promote a single, unimpeachable narrative of Israel as aggressive colonisers and Palestinians as their perpetual victims.
They do not recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and negate any claims that Jews have to the land. They refuse to lay any of the blame for the admittedly tragic situation in which the Palestinian people find themselves on a failed Palestinian leadership that has constantly rejected every offer of statehood that has come their way or on a wider Arab world that have, at best, exacerbated the rift between Palestinians and Israelis and, at worst, have exploited the Palestinians as political tools against the State of Israel.
That we reject this narrative is almost beside the point. After all, there are those on “our side” who make claims that are just as deranged, but in the opposite direction. The problem with BDS’s increasing stranglehold on academia is that it represents an extremist view that is to be taken entirely at face value, is to be entirely unchallenged in any way, and is to be seen as the only valid view of the situation that can be held by anyone who might call himself “liberal” or “open-minded”. It is extremist political-correctness taken to a whole new level of madness that has made the academic world anti-Israel by default and has betrayed the very thing that universities and colleges should prize above all else: “the ability to play gracefully with ideas” as Oscar Wilde once described the “university manner” and which Stephen Fry memorably used to eviscerate this ironically illiberal PC-culture that has become the norm on university campuses across the Western world.
Anti-Semitism on Campus
This isn’t just academic, though, if you’ll pardon the pun. There are real-world consequences to the way the BDS-sanctioned, anti-Israel narrative in academia directly affects Jewish students – which brings us to the second great duplicity of BDS.
One thing you hear time-and-time again from BDS leaders, representatives, and everyday supporters is that they have nothing against Jews as a people or even Israel in and of itself – they just object to the way that Palestinians have been treated by members of the Israeli government. Further, they abhor violence of any sort and use only peaceful methods to protest what they see as the unfair treatment of the Palestinian people. If this were true, no doubt most of us would simply respectfully disagree with their assertions and move on with our lives.
There’s a reason, though, that so many of us see them as a mortal enemy to the Jewish people and the Jewish state and that reason is what has been clearly demonstrated on university campuses throughout the world, not least on our own more politically charged campuses of the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). BDS members have again and again used their “mere criticisms” of the actions of the Israeli government as an excuse to bully, even violently attack Jewish students on campus, while deploying some of the most vicious and familiar anti-Semitic tropes to make their point.
There have been numerous incidents of BDS disrupting lectures by Israeli academics – most ironically Moshe Halbertal, a brilliant, highly respected philosopher and ethicist and a firm supporter of the two-state solution, who had come to the University of Minnesota to talk about, of all things, the ethical challenges of asymmetrical warfare – and concerts by artists who have the audacity to have been born in Israel. I don’t think any of us need be reminded of the disgusting display at Wits in 2013 of BDS and its supporters storming a concert by Israeli-born pianist, Yossi Reshef, forcing him to not just abandon the performance, but to be removed from the auditorium for his own protection.
While such protests in places like the United States cloak themselves in the more accepted form of anti-Zionism (signs saying “Judaism is not Zionism” were prevalent at that Minnesota protest) at Wits, they were a whole lot less subtle in their attacks with refrains of “kill the Jew” and “*expletive deleted* the Jew” punctuating such “peaceful” protests. That “Apartheid state” has a particular resonance to black South Africans only makes it easier to enlist supporters and to stoke their fears and hatred.
And all of this is before you factor in “Israel Apartheid Week”, which supports BDS’s claims and sanctions a level of anti-Jewish bullying that would be deemed as beyond acceptable if any other group were the targets.
The past decade has, in short, not been an easy one for Jewish students in universities – especially Wits with its traditionally large contingent of Jewish learners – but has there been a positive side to Jewish life on campus in these years and is there any hope going forward?
Though there have been outside forces who have worked to counter anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment at Wits – activists like Jamie Mighti have been invaluable in adding their voices to protesting BDS and its methods – to get to the bottom of what the past, present, and future looks like for Jews on South African campuses, there really is only once place to turn: the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS).
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the 2021 national chair and vice chair of SAUJS – Galya Raff and Dylan Stein, respectively – to get to their thoughts on Jewish life on South African campuses and our conversation was illuminating and, by turns, horrifying and incredibly positive. Their two perspectives were particularly interesting because their actual experiences on campus and as part of SAUJS have been quite different, reflecting the different realities on different campuses.
Galya is studying graphic design at the University of Johannesburg and she notes that UJ has far fewer Jews than Wits does on the main campus and, as such, far less anti-Semitism. This is all the more true on her particular campus, the Bunting Road campus, which currently has only a handful of Jewish students. In general, though, UJ doesn’t have the same sort of political or social scene as Wits in large part because there isn’t a communal lunch time on campus and students have lectures at very different times. So, while some students certainly do their best to create a real varsity social scene, a good number of students only really go to the campus to attend lectures and write their exams.
By contrast, Dylan, who is about to start his honours degree in international relations at Wits, has had a very different experience. Over the past three years at Wits, he has encountered an alarming amount of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, not least in academia itself:
“I’ve been at Wits for three years now. I first got involved in SAUJS and Jewish activism because there is a strong anti-Israel bias within academia. Many of my lecture notes, for example, had very anti-Zionist slants to them. My degree was, by nature, anti-colonialist, and Israel was viewed as a colonialist state.”
Does this translate into many cases, though, of actual anti-Semitism and do Jewish students really feel unsafe on campus? According to Dylan, things have actually been steadily improving over the past few years, especially in comparison to 2017 when tensions really flared up at Wits or to 2013 when the Israeli pianist was met with a disgracefully hostile reception. Israel Awareness Week/Israel Apartheid Week doesn’t, apparently, garner the same attention that it used to. Wits is host to Jews of all stripes and, with SAUJS standing up for Jews, Israel, and the right to be heard, they do generally feel pretty safe on campus.
Not that this means that anti-Semitism has suddenly disappeared: “In my very first politics lecture, someone said, ‘You know the Jews secretly control America,’ and, shockingly, almost my whole class agreed. I was left having to explain exactly why that wasn’t the case. Similarly, this year, just before university shut down, I was in a tutorial and a certain individual loosely affiliated with the EFF accused the Oppenheimers and Rothschilds of ‘getting to’ Mandela and a small but vocal minority ganged up on me when I explained that this wasn’t the case.”
And these were just two such bone-chilling incidents that Dylan has come across. It’s remarkable how even in this day and age of apparent tolerance and equality that this level of casual anti-Semitism and blatant dissemination of disinformation continues to occur. It somehow seems to be more acceptable to be bigoted and to spread insane conspiracy theories when it comes to Jews than to other groups. No doubt, using a term like “Zionist” instead of “Jew” gives this new (but old) kind of anti-Semitism a sheen of acceptability, while this strong academic push gives it a credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have.
And yet, Dylan admits, a large part of this comes from the ignorance – sometimes wilful, sometimes not – of your average South African about Jews and Israel rather than actual hatred (“most of these people probably haven’t met a Jew in their life before coming to university”) and a large part of the SAUJS mission statement is to try and educate those who don’t know better, while at the same time challenging the implicit academic biases against Israel.
It may seem to be something of an uphill battle, but Dylan is confident that it’s a battle that can be won and, indeed, has been won time-and-time again. He notices, for example, how he was able to convince that misinformed individual in his first lecture that Jews do not, in fact, control America, and how the two became good friends after the incident. Black students, in particular, are easier to reach because of the many historical parallels between black and Jewish oppression. Those who hate black people have a nasty habit of hating Jews just as much, and vice versa.
Creating Positive Experiences
All of this is certainly not to say that the entirety of Jewish life on campus boils down to narrowly escaping anti-Semitism or attacks on Israel and it’s definitely not the sole focus of SAUJS either. SAUJS has chapters or representatives at universities and colleges across the country, including UJ, Wits, UCT, Stellenbosch University, the University of Pretoria, and, most recently, Vega. Wits and UCT may require a fair amount of intervention when it comes to anti-Semitism, but it’s obviously much less of a problem on other campuses. What’s true of all of them, though, is that there are enough proudly Jewish students on these campuses to want to band together and create some semblance of a Jewish experience while at university.
As Galya explains it, “SAUJS creates social events, volunteering, and outreach events, and different kinds of talks to keep our Jewish students on campus involved in their Judaism and to uphold a connection to Israel.” This comes in many forms. At Wits, for example, daily minyanim have been organised, along with a thriving “lunch and learn” programme where Jewish students get to supplement their secular studies with shiurim and lectures on authentically Jewish topics. Restaurants like Franjelicas and Kosher Nandos even sponsor the programme once a month.
Perhaps most impressively to those of us who remember how loudly this has been clamoured for over, literally, the past few decades, kosher food is, at long last, available to purchase on the Wits campus. This has proven to be a huge hit with Jewish students, obviously, but has also been very popular with Muslim students and, with a focus on bagels and cream cheese, those who want to enjoy an authentic taste of quintessentially Jewish cuisine.
More broadly, even on those campuses where there are significantly fewer Jewish students than on Wits, the different SAUJS chapters on campus foster that connection between Jews by doing something as simple as bringing in hummus and falafel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut.
SAUJS does, of course, spend a lot of time representing Jewish interests on campuses across the country – not least of which is by dealing with practical matters like when exams and “pracs” fall on Shabbos or Yom Tov – but it is precisely on these programmes, features, and events that SAUJS has really made its name. This is certainly true on-campus, but they also back this up with a regular and wide variety of off-campus events that create further spaces for Jewish students to meet and mingle.
Oh, what a year!
Needless to say, though, 2020 has thrown quite the spanner in the works.
“We haven’t held any on-campus events since March,” Galya admits, “but we have moved most of these either to Zoom or to outside events that are Corona-friendly with hugely successful results.” Dylan echoes her thoughts. “It’s no secret that it has been hard this year with no student life on campus, but even during the “high Corona” period we were able to plan some cool events like a faux Bachelorette evening, which we did on Zoom and by hosting all sorts of different informational talks on Judaism and Israel. Even at the height of the pandemic, it was crucial to us that we still interacted and connected with our students.”
It’s a commitment that lies at the heart of what SAUJS is about. Galya stresses that whether students are on campus or not, SAUJS is to be a dependable and welcoming resource for all Jewish university students. “It doesn’t matter how affiliated you are, how religious you are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Orthodox, Reform, or secular. We want every student to feel connected in some way. It’s why we put maximum effort into our events and why we try to cater to all the different sides of being Jewish on campus.”
Perhaps most heartening of all, though, is that Jewish students are hardly just keeping their heads down and hoping not to get noticed by the wider student body. Quite the opposite, in fact. “We are very encouraged by our students getting involved in student politics, student government, and activism,” Dylan proudly points out, “a lot of our members are serving on various school councils. One of our own, Gabi Farber, used to be the chair of SAUJS Wits and is now on the Student Representative Council.” Galya is also quick to point out that in cases where anti-Semitism might once again rear its ugly head in the public arena, the students run with the full weight of SAUJS behind them.
The Bottom Line
Clearly, being Jewish on university campuses in South Africa has its challenges. Sadly, this seems to be true in most countries outside of Israel as a particularly underhanded mutation of anti-Semitism has earned a new kind of respectability in academic circles. It’s pleasing to see, though, that in spite of our country’s shrinking Jewish population being ever greater targets for ever growing anti-Israel and quietly anti-Jewish movements, there is still plenty that campuses have to offer their Jewish students – and just as much that Jewish students have to offer in return. That we have an organisation like SAUJS working tirelessly for Jewish students across the country only ensures that Jewish life will continue to thrive on South African universities and colleges for years to come.