Safe haven amid a growing sea of anti-Israel sentiment on campus
Idan Cohen, a University of Minnesota Hillel Israel Fellow is seen spray painting pro-Israel graffiti on campus
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hillel International has become a safe haven for students who wish to proudly side with the Jewish state.
‘Serving and fighting for the Jewish People is in my blood,” Northeastern University student Ross Beroff told The Jerusalem Post, as he began his fourth of five years of studies in Finance and Political Science.Beroff’s family history is indeed marked by contributions to the cause of Jewish statehood.On his father’s side, Beroff’s great-great grandfather was killed for his involvement in a plot to take down Czar Nicholas, who was behind antisemitic pogroms in Russia.In addition, his great grandfather was imprisoned for trying to smuggle himself into British Mandate Palestine before making his way to the United States. On Beroff’s mother’s side, his great grandfather and great granduncle founded Kibbutz Tel Hai in the northern Galilee.Today, Ross Beroff has chosen to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps on a new battlefield: his own campus at Northeastern University in Boston. He serves as a senator in the school’s student government and is actively involved in pro-Israel activities on campus, specifically through the local Hillel, in which he serves as a board member. He also sits on the Hillel International Student Cabinet.Founded in 1923, Hillel International aims to foster Jewish life and Israel education on more than 550 college and university campuses, making it the largest Jewish student organization in the world.A survey conducted by the organization over the past two years finds that student interaction with their campus Hillel correlates to a significant increase in positive connections to Jewish life.The study, which sampled more than 10,000 Jewish college students from across North America and the former Soviet Union, found that student connection to Jewish life grows with each interaction.The data shows that 38% of students surveyed reported that they participate in six or more Hillel activities per year, with 18% saying they engage with Hillel four or five times. Those who had six interactions with Hillel per year showed significantly more engagement in Jewish life than those who had fewer interactions.Engagement with Hillel was also found to increase students’ Jewish knowledge significantly and reinforce their connection to Israel.The “Hillel effect” drew Ross Beroff in instantly when he came in to participate in his first Hillel Shabbat during his freshman year of college.“I fell in love,” he told the Post. “I think it was how welcoming everyone was, I could just really find my home there.”As a member of the board, Beroff puts his finance studies to use at the organization, serving as the operations coordinator on the student board, handling logistics and budgeting, helping raise funds from Northeastern’s student government for events.Beyond trying to provide a home for Jewish students with parties, holiday events and social gatherings, Beroff and the rest of the team have also had to confront what some believe is the biggest threat to Israel today: the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement, which operates strongly on college campuses in the US and across the globe through student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine among others.Twice, “pro-Palestinian” groups have tried passing resolutions supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus and failed.Beroff, who was involved in derailing the attempts, said the resolutions simply didn’t meet the requirements in order to initiate a vote by the student government.According to him, the key to fighting such attempts to “legalize” anti-Israel movements on campus is simply to focus on the logistics before getting into any advocacy work.“Using the system in place, really understanding your student government’s constitution and bylaws and the policy of your university can be very effective,” he told the Post.Beroff explained that when deciding whether a proposed initiative is eligible for a referendum, the student government looks at three criteria: feasibility, fairness of wording and whether or not the resolution is compatible with university policy.He believes focusing on these requirements can block the BDS attempts without having to get into a debate about Israel at all.“We use that to our advantage,” he said. “It’s not a student government’s role to be determining matters of foreign affairs. The student government should care about what’s happening on the campus; perhaps they should be focusing on how their campus affects the surrounding area and the city that they’re in, but a lot of the student senators are almost indifferent [to the issue of Israel].”“We talk about the 10-80-10 curve: 10% of students will always support Israel; 10% of students will never support Israel and you will never be able to change their minds, and there are the 80 percent who are indifferent; it isn’t really important to them,” he explained.Even if some student government members care about Israel, he added, they do not see it as their place to be making decisions concerning it.However, Beroff concedes, “there is no one size that fits all. You really need to see what works on your campus, because you may win the battle in student government, but you may alienate a lot of people in the greater community.”The role of Hillel, Beroff believes, is to give support to Jewish students so that they can successfully block out BDS attempts to infiltrate the campus.“In a general sense, I feel safe on my campus, in a large part because the Jewish community is strong at Northeastern with Hillel, Chabad and other Israel-related clubs,” he said. “They make sure that we have a place where we can feel comfortable and be safe.”While Jewish student organizations on almost every campus in the US have their own experience of facing SJP and BDS, according to president of Hillel International Eric Fingerhut, there has actually been a decrease in BDS instances on campus during the past academic year.“We believe this is largely due to the strength of the response that has been mounted throughout the country by the pro-Israel community, led by Hillel on campus,” he said. “But we are seeing a concerning trend of disruptions of free speech on campus and broad-based attacks on Jewish students.”Fingerhut says that each institution needs to face this issue head on and believes that Hillel’s role is to ensure the universities understand the challenge and are addressing it in a proactive matter.“This is completely unacceptable behavior that has the potential to create a hostile environment for Jewish students,” he added. “Hillel is working closely with our university partners to address these issues.”Fingerhut stressed that most campuses welcome Hillel’s cause and the Jewish student communities are happy to partner with Hillel to tackle the issue.“The best way to defend against BDS and prevent antisemitic activity is to build strong Jewish communities on campus and to engage every Jewish student in deepening their identification with Jewish life, learning and Israel. The single greatest indicator of the support for Israel is a strong Jewish identity.”Hillel has designed many programs and activities to reinforce this identity in students, including its Israel education and engagement department, Hinenu, which provides Israel programming, education and advocacy opportunities.These programs, Hillel believes, will “create student leaders who are competent, confident, knowledgeable and articulate.”To help carry out these initiatives, Hillel uses one of its most significant tools: 75 young Israeli adults nicknamed the “Israel Fellows,” placed at Hillel centers on different campuses by the Jewish Agency for Israel.They serve as educators to Jewish and non-Jewish students by sharing their own stories and authentic life stories as Israelis.“They can mobilize a campus against anti-Israel activity and can combat lies and hatred,” Fingerhut said.Idan Cohen is one of Hillel’s Israel Fellows in the US, in charge of all Israel-related topics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.Cohen told the Post that despite the trend observed by Hillel International overall, there has been an increase of anti-Israel activity on his campus in the past two years.When pro-Palestinian groups on campus launched a surprise divestment campaign at the university in the spring semester of the last academic year, Cohen and the Minnesota Hillel student board decided the best way to counter the attempt was to join forces with all pro-Israel and Jewish organizations on campus.“We wanted to present one voice of the Jewish community, as a coalition,” Cohen said.To block out any attempt by BDS supporters to bring a BDS resolution to a vote in the student government, Cohen and the other groups proposed one against antisemitism. But Cohen believes that in order to really fight the BDS problem, education is the key.“I think if students here were more educated, if there were more classes about the conflict to give students more information so they can dig into it a little more, they would see that the situation is not like what anti-Israel groups are trying to portray,” said Cohen. “It’s not that you are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. They try to make you choose a side, which is something very upsetting because college students, 20-year-old college students who have never been to Israel and have no connection, are forced to suddenly choose a side in the student government and it is a very traumatic decision.”Both Idan Cohen at the University of Minnesota and Ross Beroff at Northeastern University feel that advocating for Israel on campus and making sure Jewish students have a “home” on campus, contributes to strengthening Jewish identities and therefore, the state of Israel itself.“I know that I’m doing what’s right, so I’ll do it no matter what,” Beroff he said. “No matter how hard it might be, I’m following in my family’s footsteps and fighting for Israel in my own way.”