If you are a college student or the parent of one, the issue of anti-Semitism at college campuses may strike a familiar chord. For other community members, the fact that this exists today is an alarming wake-up call.
In an effort to stem the tide of rising anti-Semitism, anti-Israel bias and anti-Americanism at college campuses throughout the United States and internationally, the Men's Roundtable Leadership Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia took a first step by holding an educational event at Penn State University, University Park on Tuesday, Nov. 28.
With featured speaker Brigitte Gabriel, the collaborative effort among Federation's leadership group, students and faculty drew some 250 attendees in what has been described as a highly successful program encompassing eye-opening dialogue that addressed the implications, though often subliminal, of radical Islamic fundamentalism.
Gabriel, founder/president of the American Congress for Truth and author of Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, shared her compelling story as a Lebanese Christian, who as a child lived in hiding with her family from "radical Islamic terrorists" in an underground bomb shelter. Why were they in perpetual fear of persecution? Simply because they were Christians or "infidels," explained Gabriel, stressing that there is no insulation from terrorism -- its threat exists not only in the Middle East, but in our region and throughout the nation. Gabriel shared the fact that it was Israelis who ultimately rescued her and saved her injured mother's life by providing quality medical care.
"This program was part of our vision for our group's yearlong focus to take action to deal with anti-Semitism on college campuses, both domestically and globally," explained Robb Fox, chair of the 23-member leadership group. "This issue is so relevant. Every day, when you pick up the newspaper, there are reports of incidents at college campuses across the country." Fox, who has a daughter at Penn State, credits roundtable members Norm Nelson and Scott Barsky with much of the legwork in organizing, recruiting and mobilizing to bring the program to fruition.
Nelson and Barsky also have a personal connection with the university; both are alumni and Barsky has a daughter who attends -- so the campus seemed a natural fit to begin the group's outreach.
In formulating the program, the men met with a core group of 10 students, both Jews and non-Jews. Some were connected with Hillel or Chabad; others were unaffiliated.
"Each college campus is different and the challenges students face vary widely," noted Fox. "Penn State is not one that is particularly politically active, so to shake the apathy there is a big issue. We feel we were effective in bringing many of the students' concerns to the forefront, but this is a beginning."
Though 10 percent of Penn State's approximate 40,000 student body is Jewish, some expressed concern that the university was insensitive to their needs. One example is that students are expected to take exams on the High Holidays.
"The program was a fantastic opportunity to use the resources of our group to do something meaningful," stated Fox. "The fact that we mobilized so quickly says something about the potential impact of such leadership efforts. We want to be there for the students -- to serve as mentors, to continue to have dialogue and work with them as issues arise."
"The attendance at the Penn State event exceeded our expectations," said Barsky. "We hope to hold a second program there this spring. Brigitte was an effective speaker because she appealed to a broader audience (not just Jewish) and presented her personal perspective about the lies and slander that exist. Going forward, we want the students to use us as a resource and hope they will feel comfortable sharing concerns that arise with either the faculty or our group. Mobilizing students to action is a high priority. Ultimately, we hope to have an impact on other campuses as well."
Rob Meyer, director, Leadership Development for Federation, says the Penn State event was successful on multiple levels: "This was hands-on leadership development and a true learning experience. The group took an active role and learned how to create a collaborative atmosphere with the students."
In furthering their yearlong agenda, the Men's Roundtable, consisting of dedicated community members between the ages of 40 and 50, will travel to Washington, D.C., early next year to lobby their cause and to London this spring, where the rapid growth of radical Islam is of critical concern.
Asaf Romirowsky, Federation manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs, explains why Brigitte's message is about much more than a Jewish issue or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "This is a global war on terror. It's about radical, militant Islam," he said. "There is a growing anti-Israel, anti-American sentiment on campuses. If you examine the teachings of radical Islam -- they say there are two Satans -- America and Israel."
"The college campus is the only place where there is a question of whether Israel is truly a state and whether it has a right to exist as such," continued Romirowsky. "The men's leadership group wants to empower students and give them the tools to address any issues as they arise."
Romirowsky cites examples of such undercurrents with incidents at Columbia University, Berkeley and UCLA, to name a few. "There is an anti-American, anti-Israel slant in the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is presented in Middle East Studies departments at colleges," added Romirowsky. "People are getting a one-sided view. There are many obstacles to deal with, including the fact that many of these departments are funded by supporters in Saudi Arabia with the aim of controlling what is being taught."
"Brigitte's story is a wake-up call," said Nelson, adding that the issues their group is focusing upon stretch far beyond the State College community. "Penn State is not the issue; but rather a starting point."
Nelson explains that prior to the event, the roundtable viewed the documentary "Columbia Unbecoming," where their eyes were opened to the frightening, widespread trend of anti-Israel messages at college campuses. "Too many students are not countering the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment they see on campus because they are either apathetic or fear repercussions from their professors," said Nelson. "Apathy must be fought with education and action.
"The Holocaust took place not just because of Hitler and his followers. It was apathy, indifference and silence that allowed millions to be murdered."
"Terrorism has no borders," said Nelson. "We want to work collaboratively with the students, faculty and local residents to enable them to be more vocal and active."