Welcome home to our Modern Maccabees

by | Dec 5, 2014 | Torah Thought

The story of the Maccabees has inspired generations of Jews for thousands of years. From the Jews of ancient Israel to the soldiers of the IDF, the incredible bravery and achievements of this small band of guerilla warriors has given hope to the down-trodden and inspired us to shine light (literally and metaphorically) in dark places. So, who are today’s Modern Maccabees? Who are the people on the frontlines of the cultural war of Judaism’s right to exist and the right of the Jewish people to the Jewish homeland? Of course, you could say the soldiers of the IDF, but I have a less-obvious group in mind.

These days, if we ask where is the frontline in the battle against anti-Israel propaganda hiding anti-Semitic attacks, it might take you a moment to answer. You might think that it is in European parliaments or in some other international setting, but the truth is that even with this summer’s slew of anti-Semitic incidents around Europe and even in America, college campuses remain the flashpoint for the Israel debate in America. This is intentional. When Jimmy Carter wrote a book dragging the misleading “apartheid” attack on Israel back into use, he started touring college campuses to promote the book. When two college professors, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote a misguided if not propagandist “academic” paper, which is now a book, trying to create a wedge between Israel and the United States, they started lecturing on their paper at college campuses. And of course, when the world’s leading Holocaust deniers and Israel condemners, look for a place in America to speak their views, they choose college campuses. Israel’s detractors know that pretty much all of America’s future leaders pass through campus, and they are targeting them. Are our kids up for the challenge? It is up to us to make sure they are.

A few years ago, I got to hear from an incredible college student, Jacob Shapiro. That school year, when then-Iranian President Ahmadinejad came to speak at Columbia University, many were concerned that his visit would lead to a more robust anti-Israel and anti-Semitic presence on campus in general, and it could have. Instead Jacob, along with his pro-Israel friends, used the visit and commotion as an opportunity to make something great happen.

Jacob and his friends organized a counter-rally on the day of the speech. They had spent a lot of time creating relationships with other campus groups and now got them to come out to make statements at the rally. In the end, the show of support for Israel was overwhelming. They had more than 30 campus groups come and attend the rally and make speeches! They also took advantage of the added presence of the media to get their message out, making sure there were always pro-Israel voices present to counter the attacks. They took a bad situation and made it into an opportunity to do something good for Jewish students on campus, and also for all Jews and Israelis. Needless to say, I was very impressed.

Jacob’s story reminded me in some ways of the Chanukah story. Listening to Jacob speak, I was proud to be a Jew—that’s what Chanukah is all about. A small group of Jews stood up against incredible odds and won a great victory for themselves and the Jewish people. All across the country, the youngest adult members of the Jewish community, the ones on campus, are witnessing the boldest attacks against Israel and are stepping up to defend her and the Jewish ideals she represents. These attacks have only intensified as the BDS movement begins to take hold in this country and after the weak and wishy-washy response of the world to this summer’s anti-Semitic attacks (not to mention to the Gaza War itself).

An organization called the Israel on Campus Coalition (www.IsraelCC.org), comprised of 31 different organizations such as Hillel, AIPAC, AEPi and CAMERA, is working to give students the support they need. Be sure to direct any college-age students you know to that website and check it out yourself. Also, locally our CRC does an excellent job of reaching out to our college students when they are home, as well as of teaching our high school students.

Still, we can and must do more to support our students on campus. We should all be grateful to our Jewish college communities and our own Tidewater college students for weathering the storm and making sure the pro-Israel, Jewish voice is heard. What better way to celebrate this beautiful Festival of Lights than by finding a way to show our support for students on campuses where these types of attacks are constant? They are our modern Maccabees and let me be the first to say welcome home and enjoy your break!

—Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El