September 18, 2019

Response to David Suissa’s claim about terror

I wish David Suissa had reached out to me before he tried guessing at the motives behind the statement UC Irvine Hillel students released on the violence in Israel.  Though he says the statement put him to sleep, it was but one small, non-contextualized piece of a larger success story for Israel on the UCI campus.  Here’s some information that might wake him up.

Our students are proud, Jewish young men and women who take their leadership roles very seriously.  Some are day school graduates.  Others came through synagogue and Zionist youth groups. Some are Israeli. And some are discovering their Jewish journey for the first time through Hillel.  Many have gone on Birthright Israel and participated in other Israel programs. They represent the breadth of the religious and political spectrums, and they see Israel as central to their Jewish identity.

In short, they are the future of our Zionist, Jewish community.

At UCI Hillel, we engage them in serious learning about Israel and the conflict, and coordinate events through which they can share that knowledge. In October alone, students learned about Israel’s constitutional democracy from its architect, retired Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak; they discussed religious pluralism in Israel with Rabbi Uri Regev, held a vigil for Jewish victims of Palestinian attacks, and heard about the small but growing Palestinian movement for moderation, non-violence and reconciliation from its founder and Washington Institute Fellow, Mohammed Dajani.

They have come out in strong numbers to fight the boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns on their campus, and continue to entrench themselves into the campus community to counter efforts to spread this movement’s lies.

We live in a time when campus advocacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is polarizing, and often reduced to slogans, soundbites and theatrics.  Yet at UCI, Hillel students see the prospect for meaningful dialogue with their peers, and they are seizing it.  They understand that there is a complexity of networks, sensitivities, and fears about engaging on this emotional issue, and students are sometimes ostracized by their own communities if they are perceived to empathize with the other side.  In some cases, our Hillel students need to overcome a narrative that paints them as the white, privileged oppressor, and has blinded many of their peers to the truth that being Zionist and pro-Israel, or even Jewish for that matter, does not make them unidimensional.  They have to navigate all of this, while at the same time trying to make sense of a complex conflict with multiple, nuanced narratives on both sides. And sadly, though they are not professional Israel advocates, they nonetheless have to contend with elements of the Jewish community that attack them if they say and do the “wrong” thing.

That’s a lot of stress placed on the young shoulders of our Jewish future.

Our students have quietly made important inroads in their Israel outreach efforts, but there is still much work to do.  They worry that echoes of the toxic incitement from Muslim extremists in Gaza and the West Bank, and from the Palestinian Authority, are making their way to U.S. campuses, threatening to undo the tremendous progress UCI has made in maintaining a far more civil campus climate for Israel and Jewish students than in years past.

Through partnerships between the university, the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services, Hillel, students and others, UCI has seen a dramatic reduction in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity.

These partnerships create robust learning opportunities through the Visiting Israeli Professor program, Israeli artists-in-residence programs, Israel study abroad programs, and more.  More than one dozen MOUs between UCI and Israeli universities enable UCI faculty and students to engage in research and artistic collaborations with Israeli colleagues.  Next month, UCI faculty, students and administrators will be in Israel for the fourth annual symposium between the UCI and Tel Aviv schools of engineering.  These initiatives make a huge, positive impact on the way Israel is perceived and understood on campus.

Amid this background, Hillel students issued a call to their peers for dialogue, before the rhetoric damages the relationships they are building.  Interestingly enough, their peers are responding.

With Jews continuing to be targeted in the streets by knife-wielding terrorists, many are saying that now is not the time for dialogue.  But our students are not negotiating peace treaties, nor are they engaging the Palestinian Authority.  They are simply seeking out the people they sit next to in class, the libraries, and coffee shops, in an effort to educate them about the Israel they love.  Those outside of UCI should trust them enough to give them the space to navigate the community they know far better than we do. 

Lisa Armony is the Executive Director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County and the Director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services

David Suissa responds: The writer proves my point. Even when Jews are blatantly attacked simply because they’re Jews, releasing an evenhanded statement is justified because of some broader “context.” My point still holds: When Jews are directly targeted for violence, it’s not just absurd to pretend that both sides are equally responsible, it also lets evil off the hook.