Noah Milstein enrolled at The Evergreen State College to learn about Paleolithic culture and technology. He sought out Evergreen because its flexible academic structure would allow him to create his own program of study. What he got instead was an education in political activism and campus politics.
Milstein founded a pro-Israel group at Evergreen in 2008. He left the college feeling like a campus villain in 2009. At a school famous for its left-wing values, Milstein felt unable to function on campus due to the ever-present specter of his vocal Zionism.
“I became the token campus Zionist Nazi,” Milstein said. “It really was damaging psychologically. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. I became completely paranoid.”
Milstein, who subsequently enrolled at Haifa University, was not alone in leaving Evergreen before graduation. Five fellow members of the short-lived club, Students Interested in Israel Advocacy and Peace (SIIAShalom), followed suit. Milstein’s experience, and others like it, are symbolic of what some key members of the Jewish community see as a broader issue: A poisonous discourse over Israel that makes life at Evergreen uncomfortable for Jewish students, especially those with Zionist views.
In this article and in our next issue we’ll explore the nature of that discourse. We’ll ask whether Evergreen is a hard place to be a Jew or a Zionist, or whether debate about Israel is, like one professor said, “a tempest in a tea pot.” And we’ll consider the different ways Jewish and pro-Israel community leaders on and off campus are seeking to change the status quo at Evergreen.
To the extent that the Evergreen students body is engaged in Middle East politics, it is strongly and vocally critical of Israel. In June, students passed two non-binding resolutions, one calling for the college to divest “from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.” The other would ban the use of Caterpillar construction equipment from campus. Evergreen is also the alma mater of Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed by an Israeli tractor in Gaza in 2003.
“From everything I’ve heard, it’s not a place where it’s comfortable to have a pro-Israel opinion or even to be openly Jewish,” said Akiva Tor, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest. “I think the situation is totally outrageous.”
But not everyone even accepts that a situation exists. Emily Weisberg, a Jewish student actively involved in Evergreen’s branch of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement TESC Divest, says she personally knows more campus Jewish students supportive of BDS than there are members of the campus Hillel as a whole.
“I’m a Jew on campus and I have never felt unsafe,” said Weisberg. “I am very vocal about being Jewish. I wear a Star of David around my neck. I have never felt unsafe at all about being Jewish. “
Steve Niva, a professor of International Politics and Middle East Studies, believes that nothing more is going on at Evergreen than a rigorous, if sometimes tense and occasionally uncivil, debate. He suspects that the discomfort felt by pro-Israel students is the result of having only been exposed to one mindset and one way of framing the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“My take on it is that the self-described pro-Israel side has really exaggerated their feelings of being marginalized because they’ve never really been in an environment where such strong criticism of Israel has been aired,” Niva said.
Niva, however, is among the faculty members accused of doing the marginalizing — and according to Rob Jacobs, regional director of StandWithUs Northwest, delegitimizing Israel. The dissonance between the perspectives is self-evident: A stance that seems to Weisberg and Niva to be not just critical but moral appears to Jacobs as a worrisome effort to delegitimize Israel with the added consequence of offending Zionist students.
“I would say Niva puts [Israel] out in the center as if it’s the world’s worst bad guy,” Jacobs said.
The office of Evergreen president Les Purce does not see a problem with the nature of Israel-Palestine dialogue on campus, and rejects the notion that Evergreen is a single-issue campus. The school has also made clear that it will not act on the divestment resolutions.
“We’re a college,” said Jason Wittstein, a spokesperson for the president’s office. “A wide variety of opinions are going to be expressed in the classroom. The fact is we have a long tradition of respecting differences. We respect open debate and intellectual freedom.”
Sheryl Shulman, a professor of Computer Science and advisor to the campus Hillel, does not believe Evergreen to be an anti-Semitic place. But she does believe that the dialogue about Israel could stand a great deal of improvement — in the classroom, between students, and even between faculty members.
Shulman entered Evergreen’s Israel-Palestine debate via TescTalk, an intra-campus listserv, in the months after Rachel Corrie’s death. Shulman describes herself as pro-Israel and pro-Palestine – in favor of a two state solution. She felt obligated to join the fray when fellow professors began posting what she believed were extremely polarizing statements critical of Israel.
The resulting dialogue remained extreme — only with Shulman in the middle of it. Exhausted and made to feel uncomfortable after refusing a live debate on Israel-Palestine issues because the Middle East is not her area of expertise, Shulman took a two-year leave of absence from Evergreen and went to teach at St. Martin’s University in Tacoma.
Although Shulman has since returned to Evergreen, her story is reminiscent of Milstein’s. The polarized and fiery nature of the Israel-Palestine issue on campus drove her to seek refuge elsewhere. But Israel-Palestine is not the only issue, Shulman believes.
“I think Evergreen is a difficult place to be Jewish for a variety of reasons,” Shulman said. “But I think part of it is that there’s not a large enough Jewish community and if you have that pro-Israel view, it’s hard to find a comfortable place to share an opinion.”