Brown University was not a very friendly place this past year for its pro-Israel students.
Last January, anti-Israel protestors at Brown disrupted a conversation about Jewish identity that featured Jewish actor Michael Douglas and human rights activist Natan Sharansky. The protestors loudly chanted, “free, free, Palestine,” outside the lecture hall and distributed pamphlets with defamatory claims that Israel engages in “ethnic cleansing” and that Sharansky is a racist. In March, a student group that included a contingent of Students for Justice in Palestine, pressured gay rights advocate Janet Mock into canceling her scheduled lecture at Brown just because the event was connected to the school’s Hillel chapter. And earlier this month, a group of anti-Israel students flouted Hillel’s own rules to hold a “Nakba” event as its first move to establish an anti-Zionist student group within that Hillel.
But despite the headlines highlighting the anti-Israel, and arguably anti-Jewish, atmosphere on the Providence campus, Brown is currently the “No. 1 Ivy league school of choice” for students at Pittsburgh Allderdice, including Jewish students, according to Ed Gelman, a guidance counselor at Allderdice.
Anti-Zionist, as well as blatantly anti-Semitic, activity has become widespread at many other campuses across the United States, with the incidents reported too pervasive to list here. Schools once thought of as great choices for Jewish students — for example, Oberlin, Vassar and many of the University of California schools — are now grabbing headlines for fostering environments hostile to Jewish or pro-Israel students. Just last week, Jewish students at the University of California in Irvine had to be escorted by campus police from a film about the Israel Defense Forces because about 50 anti-Israel protestors had threatened them and engaged in obscene chants against Israel outside the event.
Such incidents, though, do not seem to be on the radar of Pittsburgh high school juniors and seniors who are considering where to apply to college.
“It hasn’t come up,” Gelman said. “I doubt that most of the high school kids are aware of what’s going on. And I haven’t heard anything from parents.”
At least two local Jewish youth workers agree that a campus’ anti-Israel or anti-Jewish activity is not an important factor to the majority of Jewish high school students creating their list of top schools.
“I have never heard a teen say they are not going to a certain college because of anti-Israel publicity,” said Carolyn Gerecht, director of Teen Learning at Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
The Israel factor does come into play for those students who are strong Israel advocates, according to Rabbi Ari Goldberg, director of the Orthodox youth group, Pittsburgh NCSY.
“For those kids who are interested in pro-Israel advocacy, even if there is a strong Jewish life on campus, if there is also BDS (the movement that advocates for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) then the kid won’t apply.”
But for the majority of students, an anti-Israel college climate is irrelevant, he said.
“The majority of teens are not considering Jewish life on campus at all, unfortunately,” said Goldberg, who also runs Jewish culture clubs at a few public high schools in the area.
“Mostly, kids are looking for the best school for the best price. If there is a good Jewish life on campus, then that’s a plus.”
While most Jewish students are not factoring in a campus’ anti-Israel activity, Connie Pollock, a Squirrel-Hill based educational consultant who provides professional college planning advice, said that is something that some parents are beginning to consider.
“It is definitely something I can see parents being a little more concerned about,” said Pollock, whose clientele is about 50 percent Jewish. “But so far, I have only had that conversation with one family.”
Still, Pollock said she would “encourage parents to be aware of that and do their due diligence when looking at schools.”
Helane Linzer, another Squirrel Hill-based college consultant for high school students, said that while most Jewish families that she works with do not raise the issue with her, she most definitely raises it with them.
“I go out of my way in my practice to educate students and parents to supplement [a school’s] scripted tour and to take into consideration it’s the marketing arm of the university,” Linzer said.
In order to get a sense of what Jewish life on campus is really like, Linzer encourages her clients to get a copy of the student newspaper and to pay attention to any editorials that might be relevant to political activism on campus and the treatment of hate speech.
“With Jewish students, I always tell them to get in touch with the Jewish organizations on campus and ask them how things are,” she said.
In fact, many Jewish parents are doing just that when visiting schools with their children.
“Parents do ask about it (anti-Israel activity on campus),” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
Although there have been a few anti-Israel protests in recent years on Pittsburgh campuses, the administrations of both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have been sensitive and supportive of the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel students, according to Marcus.
“I tell parents we are very blessed to have exceptional relationships with the universities,” he said, “and that any issues have been dealt with in a serious way. It is a comfort to parents.”
But Jewish students at some other schools — particularly those students who are openly pro-Israel — find themselves constantly dealing with disruptions and protests of their organized pro-Israel events and even facing personal threats.
“We are always dealing with it,” said Ben Gladstone, a sophomore at Brown and the president of Brown Students for Israel. “It’s always a mess.”
Gladstone, who is from Brookline, Mass., said he knew what he was getting into when he applied to Brown, but it did not deter him.
“I did think about it,” he said. “But I think the majority of universities around the country today deal with similar issues. When I made the decision to come to Brown, I knew that it would be somewhat difficult. But I would have been extremely limited [by excluding all schools with anti-Israel activity on campus].”
Gladstone has felt “targeted” and “unsafe” at Brown because of his pro-Israel voice, but that has not prevented him from advocating for the Jewish state.
Other students, though, have felt so intimidated that they cease being vocal on the issue of Israel, he said.
“I know lots of people who won’t speak publicly about this,” he said. “They have been coerced into keeping their heads down. It’s definitely a real issue and part of the reason we need Hillel to remain a safe space for us.”
Gladstone cautions pro-Israel students to not shy away from schools with environments that are hostile to the Jewish state.
“It’s important that people are not scared away,” he said. “I worry that if pro-Israel people see it as really difficult and don’t want to come, it will become even more difficult here because there will be fewer and fewer people who are pro-Israel. Then they (the anti-Israel forces) win.”
Gladstone often gives tours of Brown’s Hillel to prospective students and their families. Often, he said, they inquire about the climate on campus when it comes to Israel.
“I’m always very honest about it,” he said. “No one should be under the illusion that it’s not difficult, because it often is. But if you’re someone who wants to control the discussion regarding Israel and the Palestinians, then you should know that more pro-Israel voices are needed.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.