Every year during Apartheid Week, pro-Israel student groups on Columbia University’s campus are presented with the recurring dilemma: how best to combat the anti-Israel narrative and effectively communicate a positive message to the student body regarding the State of Israel and its right to exist. Columbia’s campus is not unique: campuses and communities across the country contend with similar anti-Israel rhetoric each year.
Aryeh and Students Supporting Israel (SSI) — two prominent pro-Israel student groups on Columbia University’s campus — however, differ in their approaches. In this way Aryeh and SSI might be likened to the Irgun and the Hagganah, two Jewish paramilitary organizations that operated in Mandate Palestine before Israeli independence. While the Irgun tended to favor aggressive and more radical tactics, members of the Hagganah were proponents of havlaga (restraint) — to defend rather than to instigate. Similarly, Aryeh and SSI take different approaches in their attempts to advance pro-Israel attitudes in the face of vehement opposition.
The stated goal of the now infamous Israeli Apartheid week held on college campuses across the country is to oppose Israel’s immoral “settler-colonial project” perpetuated by its “apartheid system,” which anti-Israel advocates maintain oppresses the Palestinian people. The broader purpose of this programming is to rally support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Columbia University, ranked as one of the most anti-Israel campuses in America on Algimeiner’s 2016 “The 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students” list, promised to deliver the conventional Israeli Apartheid week experience.
The steps of Low Plaza in the center of campus generally bear witness to many advocacy campaigns, protests, and demonstrations. For the duration of Apartheid Week, pro-BDS activists attempted to proselytize their fellow students, professors, and unaffiliated passers-by, doggedly manning a conspicuous cardboard apartheid wall. In addition to the daily display, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) sponsored nightly programming to advance their cause.
Developing models to successfully combat anti-Israel demonstrations on college campuses is critical to reversing the false narrative currently being touted to the next generation of influential policy-makers.
Across Columbia’s quad, in front of the Butler Library, SSI erected a counter-visual to the apartheid wall as a part of what they called “Hebrew Liberation Week.” SSI is notorious for its counter-demonstrations. One of a few pro-Israel organizations on Columbia’s campus, SSI distinguishes itself by employing practices that some view as intentionally provocative. Last year, for instance, SSI erected an inflatable Pinocchio to preside over the mock apartheid wall — a not so subtle indictment of CUAD as propagators of falsehood. (SSI was eventually forced to remove it due to lack of proper permits.)
This year, the path to the library, a heavily trafficked building on campus, was transformed into an exhibition portraying Israel’s values and policies, reflecting the modernity and morality at the core of the State of Israel. Members of SSI curated the display, engaging passersby in conversation under the blue and white balloon arches like the apartheid activists at their own posts in the center of campus. While this might not seem controversial, in the current campus climate even a display is viewed as extremely instigative. I even heard a student compare the arches — balloon arches — and display to the “invasive Israeli checkpoints.”
Aryeh’s approach to pro-Israel activism entails subtler strategies than that of SSI. Aryeh’s executive board determined that counter-demonstrations in fact “exacerbate the spectacle of [Apartheid Week], ultimately alienating many students.” Instead, Aryeh’s president, Dore Feith (a graduate of CES/JDS in Rockville, Maryland) penned an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator in which he defended the pro-Israel stance.
Aryeh also facilitated a well-attended program, titled “Demystifying the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” in an effort to educate a student body which is “generally indifferent to the conflict,” one Aryeh spokesperson said.
Perhaps the most powerful component of Aryeh’s arsenal was deployed in the form of a t-shirt. In silent protest of CUAD’s top-billed event, “Zionists are Racists,” dozens of self-identifying Zionist students proudly projected their beliefs by wearing a t-shirt with the term “Zionist” emblazoned across the front, with a dictionary definition of the term printed across the back: “The right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their historic homeland.”
It was a subtle yet potent demonstration against what one Aryeh spokesperson called the “bigoted attack” of the BDS movement. Zionist and unashamed, Aryeh stood its ground: “These beliefs are not racist, and we refuse to be accused of such.”
Campus activism was an important topic of discussion at American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Conference in DC last week. Developing models to successfully combat anti-Israel demonstrations on college campuses is critical to reversing the false narrative currently being touted to the next generation of influential policy-makers.
Hadassah Solomson is a freshman at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she plans to major or minor in some combination of economics, computer science, and political science. Hadassah spent a gap year in Israel at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY), upon graduating from the Yeshiva of Greater Washington in 2015. Hadassah plans to return to the D.C. area after college and pursue a career in intelligence or public policy.