College sophomores Elana Zabar and Ben Dobrusin know what it’s like to speak up for Israel and be called “racist.”
On the University of New Hampshire campus, where a small Holocaust memorial was once destroyed, swastikas have been drawn on a residence hall, and anti-Semitic incidents are commonplace, Zabar has learned to make her peace.
Zabar, along with Dobrusin and Rachel Ellis of Peabody and UMass Amherst; Sophie Silverman of Peabody and Westfield State University will sit on a panel to discuss the climate on campuses and how Jewish students are dealing with anti-Semitism or anti-Israel activities. The program, titled “Campus Climate Update,” will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at Temple Tiferet Shalom, 489 Lowell St., Peabody.
Zabar, 19, of Swampscott, was shouted down during an Israel-Palestine conversation “just for saying I’m pro-Israel. I was called racist, and every bystander was no longer interested in what I had to say. It’s difficult to express a different opinion. Sometimes I’ve felt unsafe on campus.”
Racial and anti-Semitic incidents are more the result of ignorance than intolerance, she believes. Despite New Hampshire’s proximity to the Bay State, many in-state UNH students have never met a Jew, she said.
Dobrusin, of Marblehead, loves UMass for its diversity, “safe environment, acceptance, and cool opportunities.” He works with the campus Hillel, Birthright Israel, and the David Project, which brings Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to Israel and the Palestinian territories to have conversations about how to bridge their differences.
His first two years at UMass were relatively free of tension. But this year, Students for Justice in Palestine, a national group that supports the BDS movement, formed a chapter on the Amherst campus. This month, anti-Israel critics Linda Sarsour and Roger Waters spoke on May 4 at a forum called “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.”
“There was a lot of rhetorical sleight of hand,” said Dobrusin. “They had theatrical imagery, no Israeli presence on the panel, no back and forth and without any data [from] on the ground.”
“The discussion turned to Gazans hurling rockets into Israel,” said Dobrusin. “The [panelists] refuted it and engaged in ad hominem [attacks]. Someone asked the panelists if they condone terror attacks into Israel. The panelist who took the question said he condoned missile fire into areas, and a lot of people got very vocal about how they disagreed with him saying people shouldn’t have to live in fear.
“Sarsour turned it around and said you’re interrupting a man who is Afro-American. It had nothing to do with it. We were upset about human rights, moms, kids, families put at risk. She made it about the race ‒ about the person answering the question. Literally, the people in front of us turned around and called us racist. It’s going to be a continuing problem on campus,” said Dobrusin.
The Lappin Foundation and the Jewish Journal are sponsoring the May 30 program in Peabody.
“This is a great time for the community to hear from the kids what they encounter and how they deal with it,” said Deborah Coltin, executive director of the foundation, which supports many Jewish programs for North Shore residents.
The Lappin Foundation also sponsors yearly Youth-to-Israel trips and Teen Israel Advocacy Fellows, both geared to empower Jewish youth to advocate for Israel by learning its past and current history. College students who have gone through the various Lappin programs while in high school “tell me certain things happen on campus and they either ask what they should do or they say, ‘Let me tell you what I did,’” said Coltin.
“Any time we can give the younger generation the opportunity to be heard, it’s a good thing. It’s of great value to hear what’s happening from the ground.”
The Campus Climate program is free and is co-sponsored by the Jewish Journal. All are welcome to attend. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Walk-ins are welcome.