Americans Jews seeking information, support after Israel-Gaza violence

Nonprofits serving students, young people and leaders see different needs, and some overlap

For years, Hillel International has been supporting Jewish students on college campuses who feel scapegoated and discriminated against when student government bodies formally endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The past two weeks, however, have presented a new challenge — amid violence between Israel and Hamas, several officers of the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) issued a statement on May 10. Not approved by the body they lead, it condemned Israel’s actions and called them indicative of the country’s “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid.”

“What we’ve seen is student governments unilaterally issuing statements about supporting Palestine unequivocally,” said Matt Berger, a Hillel International spokesman. “When it happens at the University of Michigan, there’s a lot of copycats.”

A cease-fire was declared on May 20 and is holding, but even in the United States, almost 7,000 miles away from the conflict, the fallout from the rockets and bombs continues in schools, online, among colleagues and in the streets. The Anti-Defamation League’s antisemitism tracker lists at least 29 such incidents explicitly linked to the 11-day conflict since the day the fighting started, including seven physical assaults. Jewish organizations are offering a number of responses, from emotional support to education to content creation. 

Hillel has responded to the war of words on campus with a mixture of emotional support and education — for both students and university officials, Berger said. Students come to the organization for information they can trust when they feel overloaded and confused by the deluge of emotion, images and propaganda they find on the internet. Hillel uses its social media channels to lend credibility to articles it has vetted, and also offered two programs, one for professionals and one for students, featuring political scientist and retired IDF colonel Miri Eisin, American diplomat Dennis Ross and Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab-Israeli journalist.  

In situations like the one at the University of Michigan, Hillel staff reaches out to colleagues who work for the university to make sure they’re informed. And Hillel staff are there to sympathize with those who are struggling and help them devise coping mechanisms or craft responses to other students.

Hillel’s efforts to help students manage the emotionally and intellectually challenging effects of social media overlap with those of the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism, founded by Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. About a year ago, the foundation mounted its first public initiative, “Together Beat Hate,” an online campaign that works to create its own shareable content in order to compete with influencers who traffic in antisemitism, the delegitmization of Israel and other forms of hate, said Clara Scheinmann, director of programs and strategy at the foundation.

In mid-May, the campaign noticed a spike in incident of the terms “apartheid,” “colonization, “ethnic cleaning” and “genocide,” and created a response that urged social media users to be wary of easy answers.

“Social media is where the loudest voices have the most followers,” Scheinmann said, citing the model siblings Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid, who have a Palestinian parent and 40 million and 70 million followers respectively on Instagram, where they post on such topics as Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.” 

“Their line of attack is to say that this isn’t a complicated situation, which is what a majority of people want to hear,” she added.

Encounter, the dialogue group that brings American-Jewish leaders into conversation with Palestinians, is similarly trying to provide nuance and empathy for the population it serves.

“People are struggling to hold competing values and loyalties,” said Yona Shem-Tov, Encounter’s executive director. “How can you speak from a place of someone who cares deeply about Israel and the Jewish community and about human dignity?”

Shem-Tov said she had been “flooded” with requests from leaders who are trying to mediate between staff members who hold different views, or between staff and donors.

“The toxicity is just erupting, and it’s like they’re talking to constituents who are on different planets.”

Encounter has responded by hosting Zoom meetings that facilitate conversations between leaders of Jewish organizations and diverse groups of Palestinians — those in East Jerusalem, those in the West Bank and Palestinian-Americans — to support the alumni of their trips in the knowledge that Palestinians are not a monolith.

“Not all Palestinian are Hamas,” Shem-Tov said, “and there is no monopoly on how to express your loyalty to the Jewish people.”.