You step onto campus, young and impressionable — and Jewish. What you are confronted by is chilling. Anti-Israel rhetoric is rampant and you, prepared or not, have become a spokesperson for Israel.
It sounds like the latest novel, but unfortunately this is often the case at universities throughout North America. In recent years, there have even been a few anti-Israel incidents at local colleges in Baltimore, from an inflammatory speaker to a supposedly offensive T-shirt.
From a high in 2002 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, experts in the field say that anti-Israel rhetoric has hit a plateau in the last few years. But there are still plenty of campuses where such rhetoric is rampant and students are faced with anti-Semitism from their peers and in the classroom.
A negative view of Israel is common in America, say the experts, but this rhetoric is particularly damaging on college campuses. Students are at a most impressionable age and their worldviews are being formed.
"The students on campus [today] in 10 years time will be the decision-makers of the U.S., the congressmen, senators, businessmen and lawyers," says Neil Lazarus, an expert in the field of Israel advocacy. "The campaign on campus today will be the image of Israel in America for the next 20 years."
What is anti-Israel rhetoric? Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes provides the answer. It is demonizing Israel, and it takes many forms. Among the most popular anti-Israel sentiments today are:
• comparing Zionism to Nazism
• terming Israel an apartheid state
• requiring that Israel be held to different/higher standards than the rest of the world
• overstressing Israel's human rights violations and calling its soldiers "baby killers" while ignoring acts of terrorism by the Palestinians
• and claiming the occupation of Israel is factual when the country pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and is helping to maintain order in the West Bank.
However, David Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a network of national organizations, says the worst type of anti-Israel rhetoric asks the existential question: Should Israel have the right to exist?
Asaf Romirowsky agrees. Mr. Romirowsky, associate fellow with Campus Watch, says, "College campuses are where Israel's mere existence is debated, not just its character or boundaries." Campus Watch is a project of the Middle East Forum that reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America.
The rhetoric can come from many arenas, say the experts. Sometimes Muslim student associations host anti-Israel programming and/or build "checkpoints" on campus to drive home a negative message about Israel. Other times, groups bring in speakers to do the job.
StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel educational organization, recently produced a video, "Tolerating Intolerance: Hate Speech on Campus." StandWithUs national director Roz Rothstein says she was shocked while making the video.
"We scrutinized hundreds of hours of footage of anti-Israel speakers and were appalled by the degree of these attacks," says Ms. Rothstein. "They are reminiscent of centuries-old anti-Semitic incitement against Jews that have led to pogroms and violence.
Two years ago at Johns Hopkins University, a student group brought in Alison Weir, executive director of the pro-Palestinian group "If Americans Knew." Adi Elbaz, who was the 2007-2008 StandWithUs Campus Emerson Fellow, says she and other activists raised alarms and Ms. Weir's speech was examined and edited before she was allowed to come.
To author Efraim Karsh, however, the worst type of anti-Israel rhetoric is found in the classroom, presented by the faculty of the Middle East studies department.
In his book "Fabricating Israel History," Mr. Karsh observes that propaganda has become the accepted norm in the field of Middle East studies, ensuring, according to a 2008 Washington Times article that "students are taught an ahistorical, one-sided interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Pro-Israel students within these classrooms face the greatest challenge. "Everything they have been taught is challenged," says Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, which provides scholarly perspectives on foreign and domestic policies that impact the Jewish community in the United States.
"It takes a lot of strength to combat this. They need help," says Mr. Schanzer.
To do that, experts recommend increasing Israel educational opportunities on campus, offering subsidized trips to Israel, and bringing more pro-Israel speakers and programs to campuses.
Local schools appear to be doing all right.
"Maryland is very pro-Israel, supportive of Jewish life on campus and the Jewish and Muslim populations get along," says Ari Israel, executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Mr. Israel referred to an incident at College Park two years ago where a student visited a student union food shop wearing an "I Stand With Israel" T-shirt and was refused service because her shirt offended the cashier. The situation was handled quietly, and an agreement was reached with the administration and the food shop.
Ms. Elbaz says she is aware of a few anti-Zionist students at Hopkins, but they don't air their views publicly.
"Thankfully, there isn't much [anti-Israel rhetoric]" at Hopkins, she says, "and our pro-Israel community is active, vocal and well-equipped to deal with whatever comes our way."