Opinion: The State of Anti-Israel Activity on Campuses
When I came to the UK and started my position, I knew there was a lot of work to be done; anti-Zionism has long become synonymous with student activism and progressive values, turning campuses into toxic environments for many Jewish students
By Sophie Khatskevich
I am writing this as I am finishing my role as a Campus Coordinator for StandWithUs UK, after what can only be described as an eventful and challenging year. When I came to the UK and started my position, I knew there was a lot of work to be done; anti-Zionism has long become synonymous with student activism and progressive values, turning campuses into toxic environments for many Jewish students. Nevertheless, there is nothing that compares to experiencing this first-hand. Looking back, I am proud of the progress my students and I made, but am sad to say there is even more work to be done next year. Anti-Zionist activity on campuses is on the rise, and the voices of students are needed to be heard more than ever.
When I am asked about my passion for Israel education, I simply explain that I am a first-generation Israeli. My family lived in the Soviet Union and was forced to hide its Jewish traditions, all while being discriminated against, nonetheless. My great-grandfather was a dissident who was able to come to Israel in the 1970s, however, the rest of my family remained in the USSR and was harassed for being Zionist. It was only in the 1990s that my parents were able to finally come home to Israel, following the collapse of the Soviet regime. These stories have been a great part of my childhood, and I grew up in awe of the fact I was living a life that not so long ago was impossible.
The persecution of my family is still a vivid memory and living abroad as a teenager exposed me to the full magnitude and danger of misinformation about Israel. These experiences have made it very clear to me who I was and what I wanted to do. I joined StandWithUs during my last year at Tel Aviv University, gaining valuable tools for building bridges, educating people of all faiths about Israel, and combating dangerous misinformation. These are the same tools I wished to pass down to the students I was mentoring this year in the UK.
Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are hard to combat, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Many university students have spent the year away from their campus, and away from their social circles. Nevertheless, this did not stop our Emerson Fellowship students from actively engaging in our educational activities, while creating their own educational events online. Our students were committed to making a change on campus and even engaged in unique initiatives such as UK Peace Week. I personally had the pleasure of mentoring an exceptional group of students who fought for the adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism on campuses, challenged BDS policies, and went up against antisemitic university professors. Their determination to Zionism in the face of adversity has truly been inspiring.
The work of the students during the pandemic has been invaluable, however, their activism encountered another obstacle: the outbreak of violence between Gaza and Israel. We have all seen how the recent escalation has brought an unprecedented rise in antisemitism. This is not a surprise, as there has long been a correlation between anger directed at Israel and Jew hate. Unfortunately, the misinformation and blatant antisemitic rhetoric that have been circulating found their way onto university campuses throughout the UK.
During the war, many Jewish students have experienced stress and anxiety worrying for the safety of their loved ones living in Israel. Nevertheless, the majority of Student Unions, including the National Union of Students (NUS), have released one-sided statements that offered sympathy and support exclusively to Palestinian students, ignoring the well-being of their Jewish counterparts. Moreover, many of these statements have further propagated dangerous misinformation about Israel that has been fuelling the recent rise in hate crimes and attacks. The statements have delegitimized the identity of the Jewish students, leaving them feeling even more vulnerable as a result of something wholly out of their control.
These statements have also been used as a platform to further promote dangerous BDS and anti-IHRA policies. As I mentioned, we have seen these policies throughout the year, however, now they are gaining even bigger traction. These policies are presented as progressive and protective of human rights, however, they are deeply misleading and silence the voices of Jewish students. They spread a hateful, one-sided caricature of what is going on in Israel and the Palestinian territories, ultimately deepening the wounds of communities on campuses.
Many university students have been bullied, attacked, and even received death threats for speaking up. As a Campus Coordinator, I have provided educational resources and support around the clock to help students combat the hostile climate at their universities. I have seen first-hand how university students pay the price of irresponsible, inflammatory, and hateful language. At the same time, I have also witnessed the resilience of students who continue to stand up for the truth; many of them have participated in debates, attended rallies, wrote letters to the administration, and were not afraid to be in the line of fire.
My goal this year has always been to empower students to find their own voices in this difficult conversation. I believe we all have a personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we cannot allow others to distort reality and have us pay the price. It is clear that next year is not going to be easy on and off-campus, but I am comforted knowing that students are not alone; StandWithUs UK will continue to do what it does best: offer much-needed support, provide valuable opportunities to engage with facts, and promote efforts that truly contribute to both Israelis and Palestinians achieving a just future.
As for me, I will continue to educate about Israel and encourage others to do the same. We are all living a life that once seemed impossible, a life in which a state for the Jewish people is no longer a dream but a reality. That is why I urge you not to shy away from Zionism, or be quiet in the face of harassment. Your voices are needed to be heard more than ever.