Our kids remain unprepared during this unprecedented time. We need to fix that.

In Short

More than a kindergarten-level knowledge of Israel and the history of antisemitism is sorely needed before our children head to college.

The Jewish community today is facing an unprecedented atmosphere of antisemitism and anti-Israel hostility, particularly following the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel. This reality is as clear as day, from the volume of antisemitic incidents and hate crimes in cities across the country to the harassment and stigmatization of Jewish and Israeli students on campuses across the country. According to a recent Anti-Defamation League survey, nearly 3 in 4 college students claimed that they had experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the 2023-2024 school year. Hillel International’s 2024 polling found that a majority of Jewish college students – 56% – say their lives have been directly impacted by antisemitism since Oct. 7.

In the wake of Oct. 7, our legacy organizations have tirelessly worked to push back against nefarious forces that were present even before that dark fall day; but so many students are venturing into a politically charged environment for which they are unprepared. Despite these staggering and sobering data points mentioned above, parents, teachers and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) officers seldom discuss the major issues afflicting the Jewish community with graduating high schoolers. More emphasis needs to be placed on arming our kids with essential knowledge before they enter the maelstrom on campus. This is ground zero.

While seemingly obvious, we must start with the basics: The definition of antisemitism.

While speaking to Jewish students at a major university in February, I asked how many had been told by peers that they could support Hamas and not be an antisemite because members of Hamas are Arabs, and therefore “Semitic” people. More than 75% of the students responded that they had heard that claim. Despite the multitude of DEI programs they had attended, no one had shared their awareness that the term “antisemitism” was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879 specifically to refer to Jew-hatred, not discrimination against Semitic peoples. A few students approached me after the training and shared that this was a critical piece of information they could have cited in speaking with their peers.

Many students arrive on campus without the ability to identify basic antisemitic tropes or recognize when certain rhetoric crosses into the realm of anti-Israel bias. Many of us brush off the idea that students should understand tropes and their origins; but knowing that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a text falsely attributed to Jews and the substance of its contents would have assisted our kids, for example, to more fully understand Kanye West’s antisemitic rants. Understanding the historical role of Jews being blamed for the death of Jesus in antisemitism across millennia would have helped them better understand the problem when Jamie Foxx posted on Instagram, “They killed this dude named Jesus, What do you think they will do to you?” and subsequently asserted that this was not directed at Jews.

If our children are not aware of the term “blood libel,” how are they to evaluate Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-MI) insistence that Israel bombed a hospital in Gaza even after it was disproved by the United States government and clear evidence in the public domain?

Simply put, our kids must acquire more than a kindergarten-level knowledge of the history of antisemitism, and of Israel.

We provide them with advanced-placement everything – calculus, geography, science – but can they even point to Israel on a map or even begin to articulate the intricacies of the geography as it relates to the West Bank and Gaza and the wider region? Do they know where the Rafah Crossing is? Have we discussed with them why Egypt and Jordan and other Arab countries do not want to take in Palestinian refugees?

So many of our students do not know that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. If they have a vision of Gaza at all, it is of the destroyed buildings of Gaza shown repeatedly in mainstream print and broadcast outlets today. They do not know the industry that Israeli communities left behind or the millions that have been poured into Gaza to help create an economically viable society. We have to have hard conversations with them about the security fence between Gaza and Israel, and the complex reasoning behind the Israeli blockade in the Mediterranean. So many that I speak with believe that the Israeli blockade means that zero food and supplies go into Gaza, when it is in fact to prevent weapons from entering the area. Moreover, many have never been taught the definition of apartheid and have zero knowledge of the history of systemic, government-enforced segregation of South Africa under apartheid.

Our students are also struggling to distinguish between legitimate and necessary criticism of Israel and when that discourse rises to the level of anti-Zionism. Natan Sharansky’s “3D test” — whether the speech demonizes or delegitimizes Israel or uses a double standard — gives students something tangible for evaluating the statements of others. Our kids are awash in a constant influx of content from social media where nuance and context are sorely lacking — or, in many digital fora, nonexistent. We need to shift our thinking as Jewish communal leaders, as funders and lay leaders, and as parents towards a place of understanding where they are consuming their “news” and how we can help them before setting foot in the dorm room so that they can be in the best position to navigate these very intricate issues that affect them directly.

While giving an antisemitism workshop last summer, several students approached me visibly upset by the idea that the hashtags #FreePalestine and #FromTheRiverToTheSea were based on the idea of eliminating Jews from Israel. They had been using it to support Palestinian rights and did not want Jews eliminated from Israel. No one had ever explained to them what these phrases actually mean and how detrimental they are.

If our students do not have some fundamental knowledge, is it any wonder that they are chanting “From the River to the Sea” and cannot tell you which river or sea, or what that slogan actually means?

Let’s start giving them the education and training that they desperately need and deserve.

Robin Friedman, an attorney and community organizer, is the co-founder of TribeTalk, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that prepares and empowers Jewish students and their allies to address today’s most challenging issues of antisemitism and anti-Israel bias on campus.