February 27, 2020

Campus Anti-Semitism Made Me a Zionist

Photo by Rafaella Gunz

As an undergraduate at the New School, a very liberal college, I would roll my eyes whenever my dad talked about Israel and its importance. He is the son of Holocaust survivors, so it’s no wonder why he saw Israel as necessary for the survival of the Jewish people. On the other hand, I was content being a white New York City girl with Jewish heritage. When I went on a Birthright trip in 2014 (at the behest of my mom), I was incredibly skeptical, especially when our Israeli tour guide told us he identified as a Zionist. That was a loaded term I could not imagine claiming.

Now, I can.

Since 2017, when Jewish lesbians were asked to leave the annual Chicago Dyke March because their Pride flags featuring the Star of David were deemed “Zionist,” I saw the veiled anti-Semitism bubbling up on the left. Why were American Jews being asked to leave a Pride event because of the actions of a country of which they’re not citizens? I couldn’t imagine anyone kicking out Muslims if their Pride flag featured the crescent moon symbol, which is on the flags on many countries criticized for human-rights abuses, including Turkey, Libya and Pakistan. I had enough common sense to recognize not all Muslims are connected to those nations or blindly endorse the politics of those countries. Likewise, I couldn’t see the organization kicking out Christians with a cross on their Pride flag, despite the Christian imagery on the flags of nations such as the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

So why was there a double standard for Jews?

This past fall, I started law school at  City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law. I knew CUNY’s undergraduate institutions were a collage of leftist anti-Semitism. But I figured graduate school, especially law school, would be different. People would be older and perhaps more interested in engaging with differing points of view. I could not have been more wrong.

Maybe it was my fault for not doing enough research into this issue. If I had, I would have found out much earlier about how one of the law clinics here was in hot water for allegedly partnering with a Palestinian rights group with ties to terrorist organizations. I admit that coming here as a Jew who doesn’t hate Israel was likely a mistake — but one I didn’t discover until I was already in the brunt of it.

The irony of this type of divisive ‘with us or against us’ activism is it often has the opposite of the desired result.

Before the semester began, I spoke with the president of my campus’ Jewish Law Student Association (JLSA) about my worries regarding leftist anti-Semitism after I discovered my law school had a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) branch. He told me that as far as he knew, it wasn’t really active on campus. I breathed a sigh of relief — only to feel the same fears again a few weeks later.

The first thing that struck a nerve was discovering one of my classmates has an entire Canary Mission dossier online about her (Canary Mission is a website that states it “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American campuses”). I know Canary Mission is controversial but seeing videos of this person violently calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish nation gave me pause.  I was struck by how full of hate she was in her protests, even interrupting a ceremony commemorating 70 years since the liberation Auschwitz. I did more research into her activism and saw she founded a pro-Palestine organization that explicitly discourages talking with Zionists.

So much for productive dialogue.

The irony of this type of divisive “with us or against us” activism is it often has the opposite of the desired result. This person’s radical ideologies did not make me more sympathetic to her cause. On the contrary, for the first time in my life, it inspired me to claim the term “Zionist” for myself. Unfortunately, sharing a classroom with this individual was not the only time I was made to feel uncomfortable on campus.

At the beginning of the semester, there was a fair for all the on-campus student groups. I saw SJP had a table, which many people visited. I noticed someone wearing a hoodie that in my eyes, promoted the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Israel. It featured a map of Israel with the words “Free Palestine,” and Palestinian flags. On top of being a divisive message, the design was just really ugly. I snapped a picture not thinking I caused any harm. There were no faces or identifying information in the image. I posted it to my Twitter and to r/baddesigns on Reddit. 

Little did I know that my fellow students, including members of the JLSA, would look me up online, take screenshots and send my posts to the Muslim and Palestinian students at my school.

Being in this environment — where two Palestinian women (including the one with the Canary Mission page) but no Jews were elected to the student government — I found the only way to vent was to engage with like-minded friends I made on the internet. I didn’t feel represented or supported among the student body at my school. This is especially true in a world where Jews on Western college campuses are being pushed out of the community, including from student governments. I made my Twitter private. However, I stupidly allowed two girls from the JLSA to follow me. They took other screenshots — ones that didn’t involve the hoodie or even anything to do with school — to paint a negative picture about me. This tweet, which was about Twitter trolls, was used as justification for the Muslim students to feel I posed a threat to them.

“To me, being Zionist is not a blind endorsement of all Israeli policies.”

Because I mentioned the Israel Defense Forces in a borderline positive way, I apparently was a danger. Never mind that my tweet was hyperbolic and sarcastic. They also sent around my r/lawschools Reddit post about transferring because I felt like I didn’t fit in ideologically. I’m not sure why it upsets them that I wanted to transfer, but that post was brought up to me among the complaints.

At this point, I had gone to Student Affairs and spoken with the Dean of Students. Because people can’t transfer in the middle of the first year of law school, there was little they could do. I felt my fears weren’t taken seriously, and I would have to wait for something explicit to happen (like having a swastika drawn on my locker or being called a “k*ke”) before they would take action. But that’s what’s challenging about leftist anti-Semitism: It is nowhere near as blatant as right-wing anti-Semitism.

The next instance involved an SJP bake sale. Two weeks in a row, SJP set up a table at the bottom of the main escalators. Frustrated and made to feel like an outsider yet again, I took another picture of the table. I did not post it anywhere and again, it included no faces or identifying information. Yet, this did not stop one of the Palestinian women at the table — and one of my teaching assistants (TA) — from waiting for me after class to confront me. I was on my way to grab lunch with my friend when she pulled me aside and asked to speak with me privately.  

“What’s your issue with us?” she began. The 10- to 15-minute conversation is mostly a blur now, as it was incredibly upsetting. I do remember trying to explain how I was just documenting my experiences of things that made me uncomfortable on campus. “Why do you have an issue with us doing a bake sale to raise money for an event?” she wanted to know. I asked her questions in response: Did she think Zionism was inherently anti-Palestinian? She did. Would SJP protest if I were to invite an Israeli speaker to campus? They would. But unsurprisingly, she got angry with me for assuming things about her pro-Palestine stance.

“You don’t know if I’m pro-one state or two state or what,” she exclaimed. Never mind the hypocrisy of her assuming what Zionism meant to me. “You should have known what you were getting into by coming here,” she said, implying that my school has an official stance on the Israeli-Palestine conflict (it doesn’t) and I’m conservative (I’m really, really not). I told her to prepare for the “very Jewy world of lawyering.”

“I’m prepared,” she replied. “I have Jewish friends.”

I can only assume she meant the tiny fraction of self-identified anti-Zionist Jews. Still, I couldn’t help but think how inappropriate that line was considering how people on the left won’t tokenize other marginalized groups in such a way. It’s taboo and a faux pas to say, “I have black friends” or “I have gay friends” when talking about issues of racial justice and LGBTQ rights, respectively. So why is it acceptable to tokenize Jews in the same way?

This TA canceled her office hours that afternoon to accompany a whole group of SJPers to complain about me to Student Affairs. I was called in to Student Affairs the next day.

Apparently, SJP believed I was “stalking” or “monitoring” it by taking pictures. They thought the fact I had to go to my locker on the third floor and come back down to the first floor to pass the bake sale again was me sneakily trying to intimidate them. (It wasn’t. I just needed my laptop from my locker. And let’s ignore the whole “sneaky Jew” trope thrown in there.) I was made to promise not to take anymore pictures on this public university campus.

The next week, SJP again held a bake sale. Lest I be accused of stalking them, I felt compelled to take the back staircase the whole day to avoid them. That Friday, on the eve of the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, SJP held its pro-Palestine event featuring the student on Canary Mission as well as two outside speakers. As far as I’m aware, the event was a great success. Numerous people in my class attended in support.

Because of all these issues, I started to see the school counselor. When explaining the situation to her and why it matters to me, she kept saying “the Jewish faith” this and “the Jewish faith” that. I reminded her that, actually, I am agnostic, and this upsets me because it has to do with my ethnicity. “That’s debatable,” she said.

I was in shock. I was about to storm out, but she persuaded me to stay. Her reasoning for her comment was that “not all Jews identify as Jewish ethnically.” That doesn’t make my ethnicity “debatable.” I never went to her office again.

As an undergrad, I kept my mouth shut when SJP defaced my school paper article about being queer and Jewish. I never spoke about being Jewish on that campus again. And when, a year after I graduated, activist and former Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour was invited to speak on campus at a panel about anti-Semitism, I was outraged and glad this happened after I had graduated. I couldn’t have imagined at the time that this vile form of anti-Semitism would be something I would continue to witness and struggle with.

Lately, I’ve discovered the term “Zionism” is much like the term “feminism,” insofar as it’s divisive and has different meanings to different people. Ask a Men’s Rights activist what he thinks feminism means and you’ll likely be told it’s about “female supremacy” as opposed to what it actually is: gender equality. Ask most Western social justice activists what Zionism means, you’ll likely be told it means “Jewish supremacy and the oppression of Palestinians.” In fact, it simply means the right for Jewish self-determination in their indigenous, ancestral homeland.

Since I embraced the divisive term of “feminist” years ago, why not embrace the term “Zionist” as well? Perhaps it will make people think twice about the actual meaning of the word.

To me being Zionist is not a blind endorsement of all Israeli policies. You can be a Zionist and still support a Palestinian homeland and an end to the West Bank settlements. I sure do. You can still be a Zionist and be critical of Israel’s policies, ranging from treatment of Palestinians to views of who “counts” as Jewish. 

“Being a Zionist does not necessarily mean you hate Palestinians.”

Just as there are many sects of feminism, there are many sects of Zionism. Being a feminist does not necessarily mean you hate men. Being a Zionist does not necessarily mean you hate Palestinians. 

Before this experience, I never wanted to visibly identify as Jewish. I was low key, thankful for my red hair and green eyes, making me look more Irish or Scottish than stereotypically Jewish. Growing up, I never would allow my dad to give me any Star of David jewelry. But this experience compelled me to purchase a small, rose-gold Star of David necklace, which I wear to school most days. During World War II, Jews were forced to wear stars. In modern-day America, Jews are told they can’t participate in LGBTQ Pride events unless they take off their stars. This weird hokey-pokey game is getting old, and I am no longer ashamed to let the world know I am a Jew.

My good friend, Israeli speaker Hen Mazzig, once told me, “[fighting anti-Semitism] is a cause bigger than us. It’s our people and a just cause and that’s why we face this hate. But it is always the just cause that is the hardest to stand for.” These words ring loudly in my ears as I walk into my law school each day.

Combating anti-Semitism was never a popular cause — not during World War II and definitely not now. But if history has shown us anything, it’s that the Jewish people are resilient. Whether or not I transfer schools is yet to be seen. But no matter what, I will continue to hold my head proud as a Jewish (and yes, Zionist) feminist woman.


Rafaella Gunz is a  journalist currently studying law in New York City.