The Ups and Downs of Israel Advocacy at Sister Colleges

Students waving Israeli FlagThe Sister colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley— are united in educating and empowering women, but when it comes to supporting Israel, each school takes its own stance.

The Sister colleges began in 1915 as the female equivalent to the Ivy Leagues, which were male-only institutions until the late 1960s and 1970s, when most of them became coeducational, with the exception of Columbia University, which went coed in 1983. The Sister colleges began as a consortium of Seven Sisters and included Radcliffe College and Vassar College, but in 1969 Vassar became coeducational, and in 1999 Radcliffe merged with Harvard. Today the five Sister colleges, women’s liberal arts colleges located throughout the northeastern United States from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, follow the mission of creating an environment for young women to learn and develop skills to pursue any path they wish.

The Sisters typically have few Jewish students, with the exception of Barnard College, which for many years has ranked high on the list of American colleges with the most Jewish students, ranking 7th in Reform Judaism Magazine’s 2012 review of “Top 20 Schools by Percentage of Jews.”

Regardless of the number of Jewish students on campus, the five colleges tend to keep quiet about supporting Israel. In recent years, efforts by Israel advocates at Wellesley and Smith to insert Israel into the campus dialogue have been met with resistance.

Tali Marcus, a sophomore at Wellesley, said that “almost anything pertaining to Israel has been pretty taboo,” ever since anti-Israel propaganda was spread virally via the school’s email database in 2009.

Following that incident, in which an anonymous student sent an email to the entire college condemning Israel’s military actions in Gaza, “a lot of people were concerned about doing damage control and not stirring up the pot,” said Wellesley senior Sarah Trager. As a result, events pertaining to Israel were focused on cultural aspects, avoiding the conflict altogether.

Today, Wellesley, which is roughly 10% Jewish, has three student Israel groups, J Street, Task Force and Wellesley Friends of Israel (WFI). Task Force, a group of approximately nine students who meet weekly with the dean of Education and Religious and Spiritual Life, seeks to “have a dialogue about the issues rather than just feel animosity towards each other,” Marcus, a member of Task Force, said.

WFI, on the other hand, is a group of four students that promotes Israeli culture on campus, with no political programming.

“The thing about Wellesley is it’s very much a community where image is very important, and because of that, people are afraid to talk about tough issues publicly,” Trager said. She added that Israel support on Wellesley’s campus is most often achieved through one-on-one communication with students and Task Force’s round table discussions on what it means to be pro-Israel.

At Smith, a college known for its liberal student activism, many students regard supporting Israel as an inherently conservative stance and thus avoid the topic.

Smith junior Danya Bocarsly, who is president of the Smith Israel Alliance (SIA), said that in 2009 the student group, Students for Middle East Peace, posted disturbing photographs of Palestinian children and pregnant women covered in blood, accompanied by incorrect facts about Israel and the conflict.

Following that incident, SIA was formed, though anti-Israel activity has ceased to be a major problem on campus.

Bocarsly said that although currently there is not obvious defiance against Israel, the 2009 incident revealed that students are being given false facts about Israel and need to be educated.

SIA focuses on teaching students about Israeli history and culture because “before we can talk about the conflict, we need to talk about Israel as a Western country,” Bocarsly said. “We need to talk about Israel as a place where people live every single day. People do live there, and they do many wonderful things for the world, and they do live happily.”

By highlighting Israel’s innovation, achievements and global influence, SIA seeks to de-stigmatize Israel.

“The goal is to get people to learn, to be educated,” Bocarsly said. “Once you’re educated you can make an informed decision. I’m trying to show the Smith campus that it’s okay to be pro-Israel. It’s okay to be liberal. It’s okay to be both.”

Anti-Israel activity hasn’t cropped up at Bryn Mawr or Mount Holyoke but neither has pro-Israel activity.

Hila Shaulski, 25, is in her second year as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at the Hillels of Greater Philadelphia, including Bryn Mawr, is on campus once a week to organize Israel cultural programming for students, and a handful of students participate in her coffee hangouts and Hebrew lessons. For the remainder of the week, Shaulski is an Israel Fellow at Temple University and Haverford College.

“It’s definitely not a topic that is very relevant to a lot of the students,” Shaulski said.

Shaulski will continue on as an Israel Fellow until May, and a new Israel Fellow will replace her in the fall. Aside from the individual Israel Fellow on campus, students at Bryn Mawr do not make a concerted effort to bring Israel into the campus dialogue.

“We need students who are really passionate about Israel to take the initiative to do it,” Shaulski said, noting that she generates all of the ideas and organizes all of the campus Israel programming. “We need something on a bigger scale.”

There are no Israel groups at Mount Holyoke, which has approximately 100 Jews in a campus of 2,300 students. Students turn to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which is part of a multi-school consortium with Mount Holyoke, for Israel activities, and there are a variety of courses taught at Mount Holyoke pertaining to Israeli and Middle East politics. Besides attending Amherst’s Birthright recruitment activities and guest lectures about Israel, Mount Holyoke students remain largely inactive toward Israel advocacy, Audrey Lehrer, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke, said.

Anti-Israel activity has cropped up at Columbia University, of which Barnard is the women’s college. Barnard students join the University-wide Israel club, LionPAC, which students say has a very vocal presence on Columbia’s and Barnard’s campuses.

LionPAC holds debates and discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict and how Israel is portrayed in the media, and uses fliers and op-eds in the University newspaper to vocalize support of Israel.

Approximately a third of Barnard’s student body is Jewish, and many students enter campus after having spent a gap year in Israel.

“I feel more comfortable talking about Israel at Barnard because it has such a high Jewish concentration,” Hilana Ezekiel, a sophomore double degree student at Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary, said.

Ezekiel added that having so many students who are supportive of Israel can be a double-edged sword when it comes to campus advocacy. “If all your friends are supportive of Israel, you don’t necessarily feel the need to defend it,” Ezekiel said.

“We’re all Israel advocates, so it feels like we’re defending Israel to people who already support it,” sophomore Merav Stein said.

Ezekiel added that she often has conversations about Israel with her non-Jewish peers and works to dispel false claims about Israel on an individual basis.

While Israel advocacy takes on different forms across the Sister colleges, students on the five campuses agree that educating others about Israel, either culturally or politically, is fundamental to increasing Israel support. Just as the Sister colleges uphold the mission of empowering women through education, so too do they empower Israel through education.

“I feel like the extent I want to be supporting Israel is by educating those near me, to respond to people spreading false claims about Israel,” Ezekiel said.