Hanukkah celebrates a Jewish military victory long ago, but the eight-day festival, which begins tonight, may have a special appeal for a group of Jewish students in the Triangle. They have spent the past semester flexing their rhetorical muscle trying to win a different battle -- against those who would ally themselves against Israel.
As criticism of Israel's policies with the Palestinians mounts at colleges across the nation, Jewish groups on campuses are organizing. At Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, Jewish students have stepped up their involvement in previously dormant pro-Israel organizations and are training new members to be better advocates for the Jewish state, whether by writing letters to the editor or articulating their positions to a hostile audience.
"We need to show a pro-Israel side on campus, because we're feeling a need that's not being met in the community," said Melissa Anderson, a UNC-CH junior and president of Carolina Friends of Israel.
The new activism comes in reaction to a petition now circulating at UNC-CH that calls for divestment from Israel. The petition, begun last month, has attracted 72 signers, including students and faculty. (The text is available at www.ncdivest.org). The university has also landed on a controversial Web site called Campus Watch. Run by pro-Israel analyst Daniel Pipes, the site lists 22 universities it is monitoring for anti-Israel bias. The list also includes Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford.
Although Chancellor James Moeser publicly rejected the petition, which calls for divesting UNC-CH's endowment with companies doing business with Israel, plenty of campus activists say Israel has committed ethnic cleansing in its treatment of the Palestinians and should be isolated as South Africa was in the 1980s.
Carolina Friends of Israel, along with Duke Friends of Israel, has recently started its own petition that calls for supporting a "mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and the State of Israel."
"It's an environment where if you want your views taken seriously, you have to defend them," said David Siegel, a sophomore in political science at UNC-CH.
Jewish students who are joining "friends of Israel" groups are not necessarily of one mind when it comes to support for Israel's government policies. Toby Osofsky, a senior at UNC-CH, said she wouldn't refer to Palestinian territories as "occupied." Others, such as Siegel, said he supported the creation of a Palestinian state.
Uniting them is the need to counter what they perceive as anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian voices. In the process, many have had to rethink their politics.
Livia Fine, a junior at Duke University, said she grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., considering herself a liberal, but "since coming to Duke, I've become more conservative regarding the Middle East. I truly believe that a threat to the security of Israel is a threat to Jews all over ... especially in the U.S."
Jewish students at Duke and UNC-CH said they have not experienced anti-Semitism and that dialogue on campus has been respectful, for the most part. Unlike the divestiture movements at other campuses such as Yale, where students staged mock Israeli checkpoints to re-enact the humiliation and harassment of Palestinians, Jewish students in the Triangle say the issue has not been as confrontational or high profile.
That may change. With elections in Israel and a war looming with Iraq, the Middle East may be thrust into more turmoil. Divestiture signers, at least five of whom are Jews, say they plan a major teach-in in January or February.
Jewish signers of the petition say it's legitimate to criticize the policies of Israel's government and still support a Jewish state. These signers say they're being better friends of Israel than those who would exempt Israel from any reproach.
"I'm not so worried about anti-Semitism, because I really don't see it," said Sarah Shields, a professor of history at UNC-CH who is Jewish and has signed the petition. "I'm worried about an aggressive effort to silence critics of the state of Israel."
Others, however, said they feel that criticism may not be appropriate at this time.
"Israel's fighting a war there," said Maital Guttman, a sophomore at Duke. "We have to do what we can to show our support and to make sure Israel doesn't feel alone."