They never chose to be warriors of Zion. They pick their universities according to the reputation of their major, their desire to study in a certain geographical area or a host of other personal reasons.
Most likely, the decision is not based on the campus having an anti-Zionist culture or reputation.
Facing anti-Zionist activity in the student union or its surrounding areas is never easy. The other side does a fair job presenting themselves as victims, the oppressed and exploited. Our Jewish subconscious desire for social justice allows us to identify on an emotional level — and, for many students, on a political level.
Rarely does a student face an anti-Zionist rally or debate alone. However unperturbed our students want to present themselves in the face of a rally or intensive leafleting, the Hillel table becomes a more crowded and popular area than usual.
The calm rapport of the Hillel staff and enthusiasm of the Jewish student leadership often serve as a magnet for partially engaged Jewish students. The Israel Coalition and Jewish AEPi fraternity impress upon besieged students that there are other Jewish students to stand with.
But the student may face a more sinister conflict in the classroom. If you study Arabic or Middle Eastern studies, you probably know what to expect. But in a comparative literature class? Or how about history, or environmental or social studies? When any professor displays an anti-Israeli attitude, the student feels alone, isolated. A hand subconsciously checks that the Star of David is indeed tucked inside the shirt, hidden from view. The other students are agreeing and enthralled with a charismatic teacher; the professor knows this, bathes in it. Their ego cannot prevent the noble desire of all teachers: to share their experience and insight with their students.
The millennial student is correctly paranoid about his or her grades. In an increasingly competitive environment, where an undergraduate degree is little more than a steppingstone to grad school, any bad grade can seriously impede a student's ambitions.
And the lecturers — they stand before the class with all the authority bequeathed upon them by the university itself, reinforced by the Constitution's freedom of speech. They are eloquent, charismatic and in control of the student's destiny. The besieged Jewish student is keenly aware of this.
Most lecturers are careful about what they present in their first few years on campus. They know the faculty is watching them, that there is a line that is best not broached, until tenure.
It's true that even a tenured professor can be fired. Unfortunately, there are still cases of sexual harassment and outright racism. But in all but the most extreme cases, the university knows it has a legal fight on its hands.
The university administration provides a framework for the student to complain and understands the student's fears. It is possible to lodge a complaint anonymously. But ironically, a student is more protected when he or she goes on record. If their grades drop, they can request an independent grader; if they are picked on, they can request to change classes.
But if they complained anonymously, students have to prove that they have incurred the wrath of the teacher for this reason. A tough call, especially when you're the solitary Jewish student in class.
We have come a long way in student advocacy. On many of our campuses, we are holding the middle ground of the moderates, an area occupied by the vast majority of students. It is possible for Jewish and outwardly Zionist students to succeed in student elections. The Jewish student world advocates for, engages in and stands up for itself. Hillels are strong, active and prominent.
The next frontier is the classroom.
The engaged Jewish student knows they have support. Hillel staff can approach administration and are always treated with respect and gravitas. Also, we will never advocate for a student without their express permission. In San Francisco, Hillel works closely with the JCRC, Israel Center and ADL to counsel students with emotional as well as factual tools to deal with classroom conflicts and the professors who bring their personal agenda into the classroom.
This is challenging enough for the already engaged Jewish student — so where does that leave those who have not chosen to identify with a Jewish student group?
At best they come searching for help. Most likely, they will remain silent and distance themselves from their own Jewish identity.
Then there is the rest of their class. They hear a perspective, eloquently expounded by a figure of authority, which, at best, is hesitantly questioned by an uncertain David who dares to face up to professor Goliath.
Alon Shalev is executive director of San Francisco Hillel and works with students at S.F. State and other campuses throughout the city.