When Jewish and pro-Israel students at George Mason University learned that their campus was going to host this fall’s national conference of the adamantly anti-Israel group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), they were concerned.
But for Tal Avidov, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Mason Hillel, the SJP conference represented not only a concern, but also an opportunity. As a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, she believed that supporting Jewish and pro-Israel students to be one of her most important responsibilities.
“We had been aware of the national SJP conference since the end of summer and had devised plans to respond to BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] messaging were it to arise throughout the semester,” she recalls. “Our Hillel and Israel Students Association held a number of events throughout the semester to highlight a set of counter-narratives to some of the misleading rhetoric one has come to expect from such ideological groups.”
In addition to helping organize these pro-Israel events, Tal had a different idea: She supported a student-driven campaign to reach out to diverse groups in an effort to build bridges and foster tolerance across campus – a campaign titled “Embrace Diversity.”
“The Embrace Diversity campaign is a Hillel-led campaign to promote diversity of all types on campus in the effort to engender a more inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic campus environment in a still divisive world,” she explains, citing its official mission of “creat[ing] a space in which people of all backgrounds, whether they identify by a certain ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, come together to share their experiences and to learn from one another.”
Building Bridges as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow
As an emmisary from Israel, Tal is uniquely qualified to give a personal perspective on what it means to be Israeli – a perspective that she has been eager to bring to the GMU campus.
“I’ve had several instances where people give me the cold shoulder when they learn my nationality, which is dispiriting since it implies that they think Israelis are all bad people,” she states. “People may condemn certain governments, but if you can’t shake a person’s hand then that’s just prejudice. It’s also cowardice.”
That tendency to become divided by politics and conflict is precisely the problem that Tal aims to address through Embracing Diversity.
“[We] consciously chose to stick with positive messaging, rather than turn this into a sensationalist, classic Israel-Palestine battle on campus,” she says. “As the outgoing First Lady would say, ‘When they go low, we go high.’”
And the results?
“The Embrace Diversity campaign has been in my view a complete success, and has exceeded many people’s expectations,” she says. “Our major event for the semester brought together students from several different religious groups for a Friday night interfaith dinner, including table discussions and featured speakers. Many people’s favorite part of the night was when a Muslim student leader delivered a powerful message on the bigotry Muslims sometimes face, spoke candidly about the deplorable recruitment tactics of ISIS, and chanted verses from the Qur’an.”
Actively Confronting Anti-Semitism
Much has been written about the rise in hostility toward Jewish and pro-Israel students on college campuses across the U.S., and it seems that radically anti-Israel student groups are only one reason – albeit a major reason – for this alarming trend. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) labeled Students for Justice in Palestine “the primary organizer of anti-Israel events on U.S. college campuses and the group most responsible for bringing divestment resolutions to votes in front of student governments.” However, more recent research suggests that on some campuses, the rise in animosity towards Jewish and pro-Israel students is more closely tied to classical anti-Semitic stereotypes than to negative feelings toward the Jewish State.
Against this backdrop, Tal does not shy away from specifically calling out anti-Semitism when it rears its ugly head, and supporting the students she works with to the same. She thinks those on college campuses need to be more proactive in naming and confronting this prejudice.
“I think too often we hear Jewish groups react with apathy to swastika graffiti and other forms of textbook anti-Semitic harassment,” she states. “This apathy appears to come from a sense of treating the incident as a one-off occurrence, or from a desire to not draw too much attention to themselves because they don’t want to become a source of divisiveness, or because they feel that others suffer from worse discrimination so it would look petty to bring it up.”
Given her eagerness to tear down walls and connect people from diverse backgrounds, Tal advocates combating more general anti-Semitism with the same tools that are most effective against anti-Israel attitudes – namely, by speaking out and building bridges the way Jewish Agency emmisaries from Israel do.
“When an anti-Semitic incident occurs, speak up, and do so quickly and forthrightly,” she advises. “For more preventative measures, work year-round to foster religious, ethnic and political dialogue on campus, and stress acceptance of Jews and people with different viewpoints on Israel as integral to cultivating a discourse of inclusiveness, tolerance and pluralism among the student body.”
For more on how Embrace Diversity is building bridges and breaking down barriers at George Mason University, visit www.gmuembracediversity.com.