High school students must prepare for possible anti-Semitic bias in college

Jill M. Mogil serves on the Board of Directors of American Jewish Committee (AJC) St. Louis Region. 

By Jill M. Mogil

A teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins University polls her social media followers on whether she should fail her pro-Israel students.

A student government official at the University of Southern California resigns after a harassment campaign focusing on her Zionist identity.

And at the University of Illinois, student government officials approved a motion linking Israel to police brutality in the United States, forcing Jewish students to choose between their support for the Jewish State and racial justice. 

With so many new and old manifestations of anti-Semitism on campus, it is important that Jewish students are prepared before they start college. In St. Louis, some of those teenagers have taken their first steps toward preparedness in a program organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). 

While the majority of Jewish students on campus report largely positive collegiate experiences, the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents is cause for concern and action. A recent AJC report found that 43% of American Jews 18-29 had either personally experienced an incident of anti-Semitism on a college campus or knew someone who has.

The issue is no longer limited to isolated incidents of Jewish students finding swastikas scrawled on their dorm room doors or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s success in student government chambers. Anti-Israel activists have gone a step further—making antipathy for the Jewish State one and the same with support for progressive causes. Increasingly, a Zionist identity fails the litmus test for credibility as an ally for entirely unrelated issues.

Recognizing the need for students in St. Louis to prepare for such a complex web of campus challenges, AJC led a series of virtual workshops last summer to sensitize an initial group of 30 junior and senior Jewish high school students to the potential anti-Semitic bias they may face when they begin their collegiate experience. Topics covered included understanding anti-Israel myths and claims — such as Israel operating as an “apartheid” state, which have become prevalent on campuses — and the history of Israel as seen through its changing maps and borders. 

The idea for the workshops was born out of a pair of virtual meetings with high school students on the St. Louis Jewish teenage experience that AJC organized shortly after the pandemic began. After interviewing the teens about their Jewish identities and views, the three-part series was developed, aimed specifically at students beginning college in fall 2020 and 2021. AJC St. Louis  President Paul Kravitz, and Antisemitism Task Force Chair Terry Bloomberg, together with Karyn Lisker, a Clayton High School graduate now a freshman at Emory University, were instrumental in creating the program and recruiting the participants. Talia Wolkowitz, a St. Louisan studying at George Washington University, who became active in her campus Israel group after serving in the Israel Defense Forces was one of the workshop speakers.  

While no Israel advocacy training can fully prepare students for the challenges posed by detractors on campus, the student participants gained tools and resources for navigating the latest iteration of hate toward Israel on campus.