Students: You Need To Speak Up

April 25, 2016

“It’s pretty cool to be a Jew at the University of Texas at Austin,” said Jason Epstein, a sophomore. “I wear a kippah. There’s an active Hillel, and Jewish students are involved in all aspects of campus life. Many of the Jewish students here grew up with each other, and we’re a tight-knit group.”

But other UT Austin students recall when it wasn’t so cool to be Jewish. There was the pro-Israel event that was disrupted by pro-Palestinian activists, the time when a bunch of guys drove by a Jewish sorority house yelling “kike” and a tense period last year when the student government weighed a resolution urging the university to divest from companies that do business in Israel. (After much organizing, the resolution was defeated.)

In response to these events and taunts, many Jewish students simply put away their Jewish stars and IDF T-shirts and said nothing. ADL is trying to change that.

We’ve developed a program for college and pre-college students, Words to Action, that raises awareness of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish invective, explains why it must be checked and suggests strategies to respond to it. In its first two years, the program has reached more than 4,000 students nationwide.

“There’s no other program like it,” said Naomi Mayor, ADL Director of Campus Initiatives and Education Projects. “The goal of the program is to empower and equip students to respond to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias. While not all students become Israel advocates, anti-Semitism affects the entire community, and all students, regardless of their political perspectives, should have the knowledge and skills to respond if targeted.”

In January, ADL tried something new with Words to Action: we taught eight UT Austin students how to run it themselves. Since then, each Peer Trainer has conducted several Words to Action workshops at the school, and by next semester they will have reached over 400 Jewish students there.

Exactly what are they teaching? For starters, to recognize biased words and behavior, and how it can lead to more serious threats. “People don’t talk much about anti-Semitism on campuses; they don’t think it’s an issue anymore,” said Peer Trainer Ally Karpel. “I learned there’s a lot of subtle anti-Semitism on campus. People shared some really sad stuff.”

Peer Trainer Alex Rabinovich faced just this kind of sentiment from his non-Jewish roommates—ironically, the day after he went through the ADL training, “My roommates wrote a ‘joke’ on the whiteboard in our living room: ‘What’s the difference between Alex and a kayak? A kayak tips,’” he said. “Before the training, it wouldn’t have bothered me. Now I understand the importance of saying something.”

So he walked his roommates through ADL’s Pyramid of Hate to show how comments like theirs, if not condemned, have the tendency to escalate to discrimination and even violence. “They actually felt bad about it,” Alex said. “They didn’t apologize, but they haven’t done it since. We’re young. They didn’t realize these are issues for Jewish people like me.”

Hard-core opponents of Jews or Israel will probably never change their minds, Words to Action stresses, but for others, the program offers the following response strategies:

1) Explain the impact on you personally. If someone says, “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America,” a Jewish student can say, “I’m American, and I’m Jewish, and that comment hurts my feelings.”

2) Ask a question. To comments such as “Israel is like the Nazis,” a Jewish student can ask, “What do you mean by that?” Many people won’t have much to add, allowing the Jewish student an opportunity to share information.

3) Focus on the biased comment, not the politics. Instead of calling someone anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, a Jewish student can say, “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but what you just said is anti-Semitic [or anti-Israel].” The way Ally puts it: “Call out the comment, not the person.”

4) “It’s more complicated than that” or “There are a lot of other factors.”  These are useful for comments like “Israel oppresses the Palestinians” or “There’s no peace in the Middle East because of Israel.” A Jewish student can then ask the person if they’d like to talk about it over coffee later in the week. “This encourages dialogue, and gives you a chance to brush up on your history,” Ally says.

5) Show how the statement crosses over into anti-Semitism. Should a Jewish student hear a comment such as, “Israel has too much influence on U.S. foreign policy,” he or she can reply, “When I hear you say this, it reminds me of the anti-Semitic notion that Jews have too much power.”

The UT Austin students seem relieved to have these response strategies under their belts. “Since the ADL program, I’ve found that a lot of people are willing to learn from people like us who are educated and nice, and treat them with respect,” Alex said. “I think we’ve had a really positive influence. The strategies are simple, but they work.”

Adds Peer Trainer Elliana Sinykin: “I now have the tools to fight anti-Semitism on campus, and now my friends do, too. Thank you, ADL, for letting me know that my Jewish identity on campus, and everywhere I go, is important and worth fighting for.”