by Sara Dogan
In the wake of the federal investigation recently opened to investigate charges of anti-Semitism and a hostile environment for Jewish students at the University of California Santa Cruz, other students who have experienced anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist harassment are coming forward with their stories. Among these are former Hampshire College students Lihi Benisty and Samantha Mandeles whose testimony paints a truly disturbing picture of the atmosphere of hatred and intimidation faced by pro-Israel campus activists.
Hampshire College is a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts. As well-known Israel activists on a campus dominated by the extremist organization Students for Justice in Palestine, which is linked to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood network, both Benisty and Mandeles have faced harassment and intimidation as the price for voicing their views on Israel.
Lihi Benisty transferred to Hampshire last year as a junior and quickly became active in pro-Israel activism on campus but was shocked by the hostile and violent reception her activities garnered from pro-Palestinian students on campus.
“Being ‘pro Palestine’ right now on college campuses I think is kind of a new fad, especially on liberal campuses,” Benisty explains. “[Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)] is probably the largest group on campus and the most active group and they sound good and they present these facts that how can you not support them if they’re throwing around genocide and apartheid and all those words.”
Benisty attended what was supposed to be a small, intimate event at the neighboring University of Massachusetts featuring Israeli soldier Sgt. Kenny Sachs and was astonished that anti-Israel demonstrators outnumbered the pro-Israel students attending. “There were about 15 of us pro-Israel students and about 30-50 Hampshire students and community members that came to protest,” Benisty recounts. As the only pro-Israel Hampshire student at the event, she became known as a supporter of Israel and began experiencing increasing episodes of harassment from members of the Students for Justice in Palestine. “The week following the event, I was harassed every night coming home,” Benisty states. “I was called ‘apartheid lover,’ ‘genocide supporter,’ ‘Zionist racist bitch.’”
She adds, “One time I was even called ‘racist bitch’ and someone nudged me, and I didn’t fall, but still, and it didn’t hurt, but it was physical aggression.”
Lihi scheduled a meeting with one of Hampshire’s deans, but the day before she was supposed to meet with him she received a death threat in her email. “I received an email to my Hampshire email which only Hampshire students and faculty have access to,” Lihi recounts. “It was from Katie Smith who is probably a made-up name, from a gmail account, and it said, in all capitals, ‘Make the world a better place and die slow.’ And that was following all that week of harassment.”
“I didn’t want to be at Hampshire anymore because I couldn’t deal with it,” Benisty summarizes. “It was basically a very, very hostile environment. I felt not only physically unsafe but emotionally unsafe.”
Nor was Lihi alone in experiencing harassment for her pro-Israel beliefs. Samantha Mandeles, a student and pro-Israel organizer at Hampshire from 2006-2010, can recall numerous incidents where both she herself and other students were harassed for their support of Israel, creating a hostile climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students on the campus.
“In my time at Hampshire, I have experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, I have seen a lot of anti-Semitism,” Mandeles recounts. “The example of the harassment of Lihi is egregious, but it is not uncommon in my experience.”
Mandeles recounts one incident from her junior year when she was speaking with a group of friends gathered outside who were discussing Jewish stereotypes. A Palestinian student she’d never spoken with before was hanging out with the group and upon learning that Mandeles is Jewish he told her, “So you’re Jewish? So you and your people are responsible for the death of Jesus and all the important prophets.” Mandeles notes that this student was involved with SJP during his entire tenure at Hampshire.
Another SJP member sent Mandeles a note on Facebook telling her she should “stop advertising your fascist Zionist bullshit.”
One of Mandeles’ friends taped an Israeli flag and a list of facts about Israel to his dorm room door. The flag was subsequently stolen and the sheet of facts was shredded into tiny pieces and left in a pile outside his room. Mandeles describes how another “Jewish, Zionist friend of mine was approached in [the dining hall]…by a pair of SJPers, who, without any sort of provocation, began to loudly sing a Palestinian national song in her face. She told me that they followed her out of the dining hall, singing at her as loud as they could.”
And Mandeles relates how a Hampshire professor, in a one-on-one academic meeting with a student she knows, told that student that “Jews will always cry anti-Semitism when Israel is criticized because it’s in their nature.”
Even the Jewish community at Hampshire was often remiss in defending Israel. Mandeles recalls a Passover seder she attended where the campus rabbi, at the point in the evening where the assembled traditionally declare “next year in Jerusalem,” refused to say the words, stating “I am not going to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ because I know Israel is a very contentious issue and I don’t want to offend anyone.” The rabbi, she notes, is no longer at Hampshire.
“I got to Hampshire and wasn’t really expecting such an elevated and poisonous level of contempt,” Mandeles says, summarizing her experiences. “I just didn’t know that it was going to be so nasty.”Despite near-constant harassment from members of SJP and others on campus, Mandeles and Benisty did not waver in their activism. Rather than back down, Mandeles spearheaded an event, with Benisty’s assistance, featuring Israeli Defense Force reserve Sgt. Benjamin Anthony who was invited to speak about his experiences in the Israeli military.
Mandeles made a point of inviting SJP members to attend Anthony’s speech, noting that they would have a chance to raise any issues during the question-and-answer period, but when Anthony arrived on campus on February 3rd he was met by an angry mob of screaming anti-Israel demonstrators who hurled epithets at him as he attempted to deliver his address.
“It was chaos, they were not respectful,” Benisty notes of the SJP members who harassed Sgt. Anthony during his speech. “They did not come to be taught anything, to have any sort of dialogue. I think at the end it just showed that the pro-Israel community does want peace. So they came being anti-Israel, they didn’t come being pro-Palestine.”
Hampshire Professor Jim Wald, who was one of Mandeles’ key figures of support among the faculty, described the event in detail on his blog, noting that the protestors did not want peace but rather the “delegitimization and elimination of Israel”:
Unlike peace advocates who support the “two-state solution” affirmed by Israel and the PLO in the Oslo Accords of 1993, and subsequently underwritten by the “Quartet” of great powers and endorsed in principle by the Arab League, the protesters, adherents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement (1, 2), seek not changes in Israel’s policy, but the delegitimization and elimination of Israel—a United Nations member state—as such, which they regard as a racist and colonial enterprise. (If there were any doubts tonight, the chants of “One State!” and references to a “sixty-year” occupation of Palestinian land—i.e. dating back to the founding of the state in 1948 rather than the 1967 war—made that clear.)
SJP members were assisted in their heckling by a Hampshire professor named Sayres Rudy who Mandeles states “participated in shouting Sgt. Anthony down along with the students.” Mandeles notes that Rudy’s instruction and course syllabi are also extremely one-sided and biased against Israel. “He is clearly in my view using his position of authority to indoctrinate and propagandize and that is not acceptable,” Mandeles comments of Rudy.
Mandeles had arranged a plan in advance with the administration to identify and remove students who were causing a disturbance at the event, but the officials in charge did not enforce the rules. “The way it worked was that the deans tried but they were just not forceful enough and allowed most of the offenders to remain in the hall regardless,” she says. “As far as I know they were not punished in any way.”
“I felt very alone,” Mandeles states of her experiences at Hampshire. “People really weren’t aware and weren’t prepared to deal with the kinds of things that were happening at Hampshire,” she adds, noting that the extremism of the Hampshire SJP is more commonly associated with large schools such as UC-Berkeley.
Last year’s events have only served to make Benisty and Mandeles more determined in their desire to defend Israel—and both are presently working for national pro-Israel organizations. Mandeles has graduated and Benisty is considering whether she will return to Hampshire for her final semester. But their absence on campus has left a breach that they are not sure will be filled. “Hampshire does not have a Hillel,” explains Mandeles, noting that instead the campus has a “weak and shaky” Jewish Student Union which counts many SJP members among its numbers and will not rise to the defense of Israel. Given the harassment and intimidation experienced by these two brave students, it is far from certain than any others will quickly rise to fill their place.
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