Damning the Mainstream? Judaism as a Countercultural Phenomenon on a College Campus

December 1, 2004
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Adam Weisberg

Q: When the culture of a place is countercultural, what can you still do to discomfit “The Man” and shock the folks back home?

A: Not much.

At the University of California, Berkeley, widely considered to be “ground zero” for “anything goes,” the only thing still considered vaguely countercultural is joining the College Republicans. This doesn’t mean that most students on campus are involved in radical politics or social movements.   It simply means that there is little prevalent mainstream culture against which to chafe.   In this context, actively identifying as a Jew, a Zionist, or a Hillel-goer doesn’t raise many eyebrows. Even while students in the early days of the current Intifada were ridiculed for being Zionist, most students wear their Zionism as a badge of honor and feel neither embarrassed nor intimidated on campus.

Pro-Israel students in Middle East Studies, however, do not experience tolerance or acceptance among their peers. Regardless of their particular political perspectives, given the much politicized and often anti-Israel stance of many students and faculty in MES, these pro-Israel students (right, center, and left) regularly find themselves marginalized and treated with disrespect.

The Berkeley campus is home to 32,000 students, 20,000 of them undergraduates of whom approximately 10 percent are thought to be Jewish. While Hillel has a strong reputation on campus, among students the non-joiners are in the majority.

When I asked students if Jewish involvement placed them outside the mainstream of student and campus life, many answered my question with their own: What does counterculture even mean today?   Students explained that in a campus environment so soaked in the politics of multiculturalism, Jewish engagement is perceived by non-Jews as a logical area for Jewish students to invest at least some, and in some cases much, of their extracurricular energies.

Perhaps, predictably, it was among Jewish-but-Jewishly-uninvolved peers that Jewishly involved students found the least thoughtful regarding their level of Jewish engagement and commitment. While uninvolved Jews don’t tend to see such engagement as countercultural, they also don’t see it as worth their time and energy. Students who are involved seek out Hillel because they feel it adds meaning to their lives and their college experiences.   And while it enhances their sense of connection with a community, history, and tradition, the students concur that it doesn’t make them feel less a part of the larger campus society and culture in which they are equally comfortably engaged.

Hillel provides students opportunities to commit their energies and enthusiasm to something bigger than themselves.   Participation in campus Jewish life is no more countercultural for our students than involvement in a fraternity, a campus theater group, or student government.   And while such involvements deepen students’ feelings of cultural and religious uniqueness, this heightened awareness of their uniqueness doesn’t make them feel any less mainstream because the general cultural norms on campus have become so inclusive and expansive.   It seems that Jewish students can be deeply involved in Jewish life and culture on campus and can still feel themselves, and be treated by others, as fully integrated members of the general campus community. And while all of this may fall apart for a brief period in the wake of an antisemitic or anti-Israel incident on campus, it is remarkable how briefly such incidents occupy most students’ attention.

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