Is there a more syrupy genre than the commencement speech? Having had the opportunity to deliver one in person, I can report that once you accept the honor and present yourself, becapped and begowned, in front of the newly minted grads, you are already poised and primed to lie. Anything else would be a stretch: You would have to be a meanie to tell these plump youngsters anything resembling the truth, which is always too thorny and complicated and dark to deliver while Mom and Dad are beaming from the back rows, awaiting the celebratory graduation lunch.
And so this week, as school comes to an end, I want to deliver a different kind of address, not to those leaving college with pomp and circumstance at their backs but to those bedraggled souls staying behind. You young scholars are Rapunzeled atop the Ivory Tower for some years to come and so could benefit from a dispatch that has little of the swishy beauty of the commencement speech but is more accurate and direct. Here it is, short and unadorned: Things on the quad are pretty grim.
I’ll spare you the outrage over trigger warnings and micro-aggressions and the other forms of butchery the barbarians inside the universities’ gates perpetrate daily against free inquiry, free speech, and other expressions of liberty. Instead, I wish to speak to and about that most at-risk population currently on campus: young Jews.
You hardly need me, friends, to tell you that anti-Semitism on American campuses is spiking; half of you, according to a recent report, personally experienced or witnessed it firsthand. What you may need is a solid bit of advice about what to do—what to do when fellow students send mock eviction notices to your dorm; what to do when a professor opines that “justice and freedom for the Palestinians is incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel”; what to do when even the most genial of your peers fail to understand why you would ever consider supporting Zionism when it, by seemingly universal consensus, is little more than a colonialist, racist, oppressive ideology that is better eradicated than understood.
I can answer this question, not only because I’ve spent the lion’s share of the past two decades on college campuses—first as a graduate student, then as a professor—but also because I’ve been terribly, horribly, utterly wrong about it before, earning me, I hope, the sort of wisdom that comes only from repentance. In 2004, working as a journalist for another Jewish publication and struggling with my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, I was invited to watch a documentary film that alleged widespread and systemic anti-Israeli bias among some of the university’s professors of Middle Eastern studies, a bias that sometimes festered into outright intimidation. Being a lifelong member of the Israeli left and a collegial sort of chap, I hesitated little before choosing sides. The Jewish students who made and appeared in the film seemed to me shrill and dogmatic, while the professors they were accusing, sharply dressed purveyors of intoxicating ideas, struck me as what I myself wanted to one day become. I wrote against the Jewish students with all the spume only the young and absolutely convinced can produce. Names were called. Emotions ran high.
Now that I’ve gained some experience and perspective—helped, I should gratefully say, by some of those with whom I sparred a decade ago and who are now my dear friends—I’m happy to look back and report that my mistake was based on two assumptions. The first was that Israel’s critics on campus, however vocal, were primarily interested in polite exchanges of well-reasoned positions; the second, following closely, dictated that the best way to proceed when confronted with criticism was to be a good academic and present the facts in an orderly and cogent way.
Sadly, dear not-yet-graduates, neither of these assumptions turned out to be correct. While you may stumble upon a scrum of folks interested in having what you’ll recognize as an honest debate—and when you do, kindly buy them a cup of coffee and cherish the pleasures of genuine intellectual discussion, which is among the world’s rarest and sweetest treats—the majority of anti-Israel sentiments you’ll experience are impervious to reason and oblivious of facts. This being college, it’s unlikely that the hysterics you encounter will admit their hate; rather, they’ll wrap it in useful theories, telling you that any support of Israel violates the tenets of post-colonialist, post-modernist, late-capitalist, neo-Marxist dogma. Having whipped out these intellectual bona fides the way cops in bad action films ludicrously hold up their badges as they move in for some dramatic bust, the anti-Israel crowd will then descend from Mount Jargon and offer up an attempt at human connection: Look, they’ll tell you, we’re not anti-Semitic, we’re just anti-Zionist. As if opposing the Jewish right to have a sovereign national homeland, while actively advocating for another nation to enjoy the very same right, isn’t just another form of irrational hatred. As if arguing that Jews and Jews alone had no right to self-determination was somehow more complicated than rank bigotry. As if objecting to Israel’s policies somehow made it OK to deny it the right to exist.
When confronted with this hateful drivel, then, don’t bother trying to come up with some clever retort. Instead, do what anyone should when accosted by a hate group: attack, attack, attack.
Others smarter and more experienced than me have been saying the same thing for a long time now, but, sadly, few of you, still-students, and even fewer adults in the larger organizational Jewish world are paying attention. Too often, we respond to hate the way a hapless nerd might respond to the bully about to stuff him into a locker, with some sad mixture of pride in our intellectual superiority and desperate attempt to be liked no matter what. Memories of your own days in high school, dear students, are still fresh, and so you know that charm and brains don’t matter much to bullies. The only way to stop bullies is to fight them.
On campus, this means three things. First, stop apologizing. Right now. You may be critical of certain aspects of Israel’s policy; if you’re not, you should march right into your university’s bursar’s office and demand a refund, as you’ve clearly failed to exercise your capacity for critical thinking in any meaningful way. But despite of these complexities, or maybe precisely because of them, you have much to be proud of: proud of being Jewish, proud of Israel, and proud of understanding the nuanced yet indispensable connection between the two. Start out by finding people who are just as proud, and cultivate a community predicated on faith, joy, candor, and all the other things that make life rich and nurturing.
Once you do that, you’ll discover that the old adage is true: Haters are indeed going to hate. Do not try to debate them or appease them or engage them in any sort of feel-good exercise. Instead, drag their bigotry into the light and make them pay for it. Force those who fail to condemn the atrocities of Hamas, those who believe that the Jews are somehow to blame for the rage of the maniacs who repeatedly rise to murder them, and those who defile history and morality by comparing Israel to Apartheid-era South Africa or to Nazi Germany to explain their hateful positions, and then explain why anyone so disdainful of reason and so devoid of empathy, decency, and common sense should have a place in any American institution of higher learning. Be like the shark in that Woody Allen joke, always moving, always ready to bare its teeth.
When you do, remember the final and most important piece of advice: No matter how relentless the adversity you face on campus, there’s a whole wide world out there that truly, blissfully, cares very little about the ideological battles you fight every day. These people are your natural allies. If you want them to take your side, don’t scare them with bluster or turn them off with self-righteousness. Instead, find funny and creative ways to make them see the absurdity of being denied the right to celebrate your identity by the same people consumed with celebrating every other expression of identity or the outrage of being subjected to hate speech in an environment allegedly devoted to the calm and unfettered exchange of ideas. Counter the bigots’ display of intolerance and fear with a better one of humor and hope, and let well-balanced people on campus decide which side is more appealing. As activists from Siberia to the Maldives have shown us, there’s no better way to combat hate and oppression.
Which, dear still-here-students, is very good news. The haters may be vile and they may be many, but they’re not the majority, not on campus and certainly not in the outside world. You haven’t yet had a chance to attend your 20th college reunion, but trust me when I tell you that the bullies, in the long run, never come out on top. They are always crushed by people like you, people who are proud of who they are, who strike back when put down, who believe in liberty and in justice, who would rather build than destroy, and who know that there’s no greater joy and privilege out there, before or after graduation, than fighting for what’s so clearly right.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.