Israel Shaming on College Campuses
I recently returned from a tour of college campuses, in which I screened a documentary film class I host entitled Media101: Reading Between the Lines. The film advocates media literacy, explores different aspects of media bias and helps students to identify skewed news coverage. While the elements of bias can be broadly applied, in this film we specifically explore coverage of Israel and the Middle East. My reasons for partnering with Jerusalem U, a Jewish educational organization, to make this film are twofold. My experience working for, and ultimately publicly resigning from the Russian-backed television station RT TV, opened my eyes to the dangers of biased and propagandized media. I resigned when the station took a shameful turn toward using information manipulation to distort reality during the bloody conflict in Ukraine. With the radical transformation of the media environment in the digital age spawning outlets with varying agendas and dedication to truth, now more than ever, media literacy is a crucial tool for a functional and informed democracy.Secondly, I felt compelled to make this film due to the bizarre backlash following my resignation from internet commentators and social media users on the far left, charging me with being part of a Zionist conspiracy to ignite World War 3. The accusations had no basis in reality. But the rhetoric was shockingly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. They played on conspiratorial stereotypes that bigots have used to condemn Jews for centuries. And I’m not even Jewish. Nor do I have ties to Israel. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be disturbed by this language. The film screenings, followed by Q &A sessions with students, were hosted by Jerusalem U, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and pro-Israel groups on college campuses. The campuses I visited, from Syracuse to University of Central Florida to University of Connecticut are not known to be politically charged. Yet I was shocked to hear some of the stories from students. Here, the shame of showing positive perspectives toward Israel came from professors. At Elon University in North Carolina, Sophomore Carly Goldstein told me about her hopes to study abroad in Israel, but was advised against it by several professors. She recalled a history class with a focus on the Middle East and how Israel came to be in which the professor said the existence of Israel was made possible because “Jews had Jews back home to send them more money and the poor Arabs didn’t have any rich Arabs to fund them.”While she said she hasn’t experienced anti-Semitism on campus, she worries that lessons like this can be associated with the Jewish people in general. “To know that this is the only thing they might know about Israel is frightening to me,” said Goldstein. A PhD student in religious studies from Duke University who attended the screening discussed a paper he recently presented. His professor for this class is known to be a supporter of the anti-Israel BDS movement, a global campaign that aims to economically and politically suffocate the country. After his presentation, the professor asked him if he was Orthodox, to which he replied that that he is Jewish, but does not identify as Orthodox. “I didn’t make any judgments but she kind of took it as pro-Israel,” said Dave who did not want to disclose his last name because he wishes to get a good grade. “It makes me feel unfortunate that I have to think twice about what I write about. It makes me feel uncomfortable that I have to be subjected to the scrutiny of these professors that have a bias when they’re grading papers.”Alex, another student in attendance that also did not want to give his last name due to grading concerns, came to the screening from a nearby community college. He recalled a history class in which the teacher “has made remarks where she indicated that she preferred for Israel not to exist... she taught that Jews don’t want the word Holocaust to be applied to the Armenian genocide because no one can suffer as much as them. She said Jews don’t think anyone can suffer as much as them.”“There’s nothing wrong with a teacher being more liberal, that’s perfectly fine. But when it crosses the line into a kind of hatred that makes students uncomfortable, I think that there’s a problem,” said Alex. I did not have to dig deep to hear these stories. They were quickly recalled from students on campuses with student bodies they describe as largely apolitical. I can’t imagine what it’s like at other campuses where anti-Israel groups are known to be vocal and intimidating. In the academic age of safe spaces and hypersensitivity to political correctness, you would think this kind of rhetoric would be obviously off limits. These aren’t “microaggressions” – a term that has become ubiquitous particularly on campuses to describe subtle, yet unintentional comments or actions that might offend minorities. These are macro assaults on freedom of speech, cultural identity, and stifling of academic debate on a profoundly complex conflict. Some students worry that what happens on campus transfers on to the real world. “If they teach things that aren’t accurate about Israel then students might have a distorted sense of reality and they can become the future policy-makers in this country,” said Dave.