Being silent on campus

Read this guest post on our Student Views blog by Gila, a proud Israel supporter who has kept quiet about that fact while at university

July 06, 2017 12:11

I love Israel. I spent my gap year there. But on campus I am silent. 
Two years of attending a university with an anti-Israel atmosphere has left me feeling frustrated and slightly hopeless. Even the Jewish Society I am involved with has made the decision to exclude Israel from our agenda.

However, deciding to go to a university like this was a sacrifice I was willing to make for my university experience. Sussex, surrounded by the beautiful Downs, was the perfect university for me in every other way, particularly as I wanted to pop my comfortable Jewish bubble. However, after attending only Jewish schools, it was impossible for me to imagine the amount of animosity I would experience towards a country I love.

Having a Hebrew name meant my assumed association with Israel begins upon introductions. Keeping part of my identity hidden was never my intention.

However, during Freshers after a week of meeting hundreds of new people I began to dread questions about my name like “What does it mean?” or “oh that’s an interesting name, where is it from?” 

I have never been embarrassed or ashamed about my affinity towards Israel. But when you are in a social situation sometimes you just are not in the mood to try and explain something so complex in a seemingly casual way.

The need to justify the cultural and religious origins of my name keeps me in the clear of potential political debates surrounding the hot topic of Israel-Palestine. Hebrew names are not considered exotic or cool.

Sometimes I say my name is made up, others I admit the Hebrew origins of it and always awkwardly blurt out, “it’s religious because I am Jewish”. Luckily the supposed disassociation between Zionism and Judaism has allowed me to steer clear from any Israel hate-speech. 
Maybe I read too much into the blank or confused facial expressions of my peers when I say my name is Hebrew. But I do not want to be judged or defined so quickly, especially when most of the people I have met at university have never encountered a Jew before.

Having one of the most active pro-BDS Palestinian societies in the country does not make things any easier.  My Sussex friends mainly see two sides to the conflict I vigorously try to understand the nuances of.

Awkwardly tiptoeing around the topic of Israel has forced me and my Jewish friends at Sussex into the closet.  At our Jewish Society meetings on campus I have found myself being hushed when I mention the taboo word “Israel”. The small antisemitic attacks throughout this year - the big example being a 9/11 Jewish conspiracy theory graffitied on the library square - have been of no help.

The fight to have the Jewish voice heard by the Student Union led to six months of negotiations for them to simply release a statement ensuring Jewish students were safe on campus. The lack of acknowledging the reality of antisemitism led me to feel that rendering for a positive image of Israel on campus would not make a dent. The empty but effective ever presence rhetoric of the Palestinian Society has further silenced me.

I will admit that even though I actively support the State of Israel, I did not want advocating for it on campus to define my University career. There are other societies I am involved with and things I would rather be doing.

Nonetheless, sometime discussing and standing up for Israel cannot be avoided. Partaking in a Middle East history course was never going to be easy at an acknowledged left-wing university. Fact checking was not something I sought out in my seminars but when my tutor referred to the Rothschilds as the religious leaders of the Jewish community I had to disagree.

As the only outed pro-Israel student on my course, I felt the need to defend Israel from the assumptions that it was completely developed by Jewish businessmen. For the rest of the course I found my seminar tutor looking to me for confirmation on almost every fact she shared about Israel. Being the token Jew in the class was never my intention.
It has been difficult to listen to my friends complain about our Israeli professor’s “one-sided and blind love of Israel”. It has been even more difficult to hear them swoon over our pro-BDS and Palestinian Society supporter professor, who delivers the main lectures of our Global History course. It is simply easier to avoid a never ending debate with my friends over every little comment. 

However, the "Jezza" fandom on campus  has given me the push to question my friends undying support of a flawed political leader.  His pro Hammas stance is something I cannot stomach. Although, his social agenda is admirable, ignoring his support for what I consider a terrorist organisation should not and cannot be tolerated. 

With a rapidly increasing number of Jews going to Sussex it will be more and more possible to have our voices heard. I am hopeful that strength in numbers will influence the politicised atmosphere on campus. Whether I will be at the forefront of this I could not say.

It is important to make my fellow students at Sussex know that antisemitism is real and that saying the State of Israel has no right to exist is a part of this. Looking back on the past two years I should have fought harder against the JSoc's decision to exclude Israel events.

Our silence only encourages more false generalisations and ignorance.
Telling my cherished stories from my gap year in Israel will begin to help my peers look beyond the headlines. It is important for Jewish students at Sussex to come out of the closet and stay out.

Gila Sheldon is a second-year student at Sussex University

July 06, 2017 12:11

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