From The Holocaust to the ‘Humous War’: A Lesson For Jewish College Students

by Rafael Medoff

The battle against Israeli humous on American college campuses may have suffered a temporary setback, but will Jewish students be ready for the next round of assaults by the rapidly-growing anti-Israel boycott movement?

At Princeton University, in New Jersey, the Princeton Committee on Palestine rounded up enough signatures to force a student vote, earlier this month, on whether the campus cafeteria should offer an alternative to Sabra humous, whose manufacturer is partly owned by an Israeli company. The proposal was rejected by a vote of 1,014 to 699.

Meanwhile, at DePaul University, in Chicago, a group called “Students for Justice in Palestine” last month asked the administration to halt the sale of Sabra humous. The administration quickly agreed to do so, but then a few days later it announced reinstatement of the humous until a committee reviews the matter.

If Jewish students think they can rest easy as a result of the Princeton victory and the DePaul reversal, they likely will be disappointed. Anti-Israel activists on American college campuses are energetic, creative, and determined. Surely they will find new targets and new methods of attack.

Perhaps today’s Jewish students can derive some inspiration from the efforts undertaken by a group of students at Jewish and Christian theological seminaries in 1942-1943 to press for the rescue of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

In December 1942, the U.S. and its allies confirmed that the Nazis were carrying out the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. Most American Jews, including most Jewish college students, were undoubtedly horrified by the news but did not believe there was anything they could do about it. Three rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), in New York City, responded differently.

Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick, and Moshe “Buddy” Sachs established the European Committee of the JTS Student Body, the first and only college student movement for the rescue of Jews from Hitler. Rejecting the Roosevelt administration’s claim that rescue was impossible, the students presented American Jewish leaders with a list of practical steps that could be taken to facilitate rescue, including sheltering Jews in U.S. territories such as the Virgin Islands; pressuring the British to open Mandatory Palestine to refugees; Allied negotiations with Nazi satellite countries to secure Jewish emigration; and food shipments to starving Jews in the ghettoes.

When Jewish leaders failed to take an interest in these proposals, the JTS students reached out to their neighbors across Broadway, the Union Theological Seminary, the leading institution for the training of Protestant clergy. In February 1943, JTS and UTS students held a remarkable ecumenical conference that publicized the need for U.S. rescue action.

The indefatigable JTS students eventually persuaded the Synagogue Council of America to undertake a six-week campaign of prayer rallies, partial fast days, petitions, and letter-writing by synagogues around the country. This nationwide educational effort played an important role in raising American Jewish awareness of the plight of European Jewry and the need for rescue action.

The JTS students had no budget, staff, or office. They faced a Jewish leadership that was afraid to defy President Roosevelt, and a Jewish community that seemed largely apathetic. But passion and persistence enabled this little group of rabbinical students to accomplish more than many of the long-established Jewish professionals and bureaucrats.

Carl Alpert, the editor of a leading American Zionist magazine, wrote to the JTS students in April 1943: “When I note the progressiveness, the imagination, and the energetic spirit displayed in your memorandum, I feel that perhaps it would not be such a bad idea if all leaders of American Jewry were to abdicate and a committee of students from the respective Rabbinical seminaries were to take over for a period of six months. It’s quite an idea, isn’t it?”

Jewish students at American universities today likewise will need to muster all their imagination and energetic spirit to counter the campus war against Israel. One hopes they will not lose heart when confronted by boisterous opponents or indifferent university officials. For as the JTS actvists demonstrated in 1943, it really is possible for even a handful of students with an old typewriter –or laptop!– to make a real difference.

January 2011