As students prepare for the fall semester, many anxiety ridden about the coronavirus, they’re likely not thinking about facing anti-Semitism or anti-Israel bias. But these problems are real. Though dealing with them can be overwhelming and scary, they can also help Jewish students crystalize who they are and what they stand for.
Last November, as I was sitting in our student union at Arizona State University waiting for a Hillel event featuring Israeli soldiers to start, I saw a group of 50 students chanting and heading toward the room Hillel had reserved. My heart dropped when I saw their posters: “Long live the intifada,” and other anti-Israel rhetoric.
I tucked my Star of David necklace into my shirt and sat frozen in my chair until they were gone. I had been so excited for this event, but even though it was moved to another room, the protesters deterred me. I called my roommates to walk me home because I didn’t feel safe on campus by myself.
Before that moment, I always thought ASU was different. While I saw anti-Israel rhetoric at other schools, I thought it would never happen to us.
I was wrong. We weren’t immune from hate, and it didn’t stop there.
Just a few weeks after the protest, I learned there would be a boycott, divestment and sanction resolution against Israel at the next student government meeting. I was nervous, but as Hillel president, I knew I had to be strong for my community and my peers. I needed to be there for Israel and most importantly, I needed to be there for myself. I didn’t want any students to experience the same fear I had felt that day in the student union, feeling targeted because of my pro-Israel identity.
I have never seen a group of people mobilize as quickly as the ASU Hillel staff.
They organized student committees, created effective communication with students and parents, set up meetings with the ASU administration, and prepared to support our needs. I did so much outside of my comfort zone during those weeks, meeting with administrators and educating dozens of my Jewish and non-Jewish peers about what it means to be connected to Israel.
I hadn’t planned on speaking at the hearing, as there were so many educated and passionate pro-Israel advocates who wanted to share their perspective. But in a planning meeting, the Hillel director leaned over to me, and said, “I am really excited to hear you speak.” I remember squinting at her, confused.
After explaining I had no intention of doing so, she reminded me of the impact I had as Hillel president, and the potential impact I could have opposing the BDS resolution. With her support, I decided I would speak at the meeting.
When the day arrived, I was so proud to see more than 70 supporters from the Jewish and pro-Israel communities at the hearing. I was the first student to speak in the open forum. While the other students would offer facts about Israel and the reality of BDS, I spoke about my ASU story. I was now a vocal supporter of Israel.
I became the kind of leader who loved Israel when it was easy and when it was difficult.
The hours we spent strategizing and planning paid off. The BDS resolution was removed from the voting agenda and the student government even passed a resolution expressing the campus’ opposition to anti-Semitism, acts of intimidation, and solidarity with the Jewish community.
This was one of my hardest experiences at ASU. But looking back, I am so grateful for the opportunities I had while conquering these difficulties. Earlier in the year, one of the Hillel staff encouraged me to spend my year after graduation in Israel. It wasn’t until these troubling events unfolded that I realized how desperately I wanted and needed to be in Israel.
My college experience taught me that no matter where I am, the Jewish community on campus and beyond will always be supportive, especially during times of struggle. I hope students learn from my experiences and apply them to obstacles they may face on campus. JN
Sarah Balis attended ASU from 2016-2020, and will serve as an English teacher in Israel next year through MASA.