Much has been written about Israel's bleak image on university campuses around the world. This is true on campuses in countries that are friendly with Israel, like the U.S. and Canada, and doubly true in European academies. Many Israeli diplomats who were asked to speak to foreign student audiences have emerged with stories of difficult encounters with irate students, furious with the Jewish state.
Can you imagine a university where Christian and Muslim students harbor sentiments of tolerance toward Israel and the Jewish faith, and even enjoy kosher food during the course of their studies, not because they are pro-Zionist or interested in the Jewish culture but simply because they spend a lot of time in the Jewish dorm? This seemingly imaginary situation is actually a reality at Shalom College in Sydney, Australia. It was there that I discovered during my visit last month that Israel hatred and anti-Semitism are not a must at academic institutions.
When I was invited to give a series of lectures on the Arab uprising at Shalom College, I never imagined that I was in for a treat, which would turn into a corrective emotional experience. Many years of participating in panels and conferences at various universities around the world have given me a sense that being Israeli, I belong to the world's last surviving colonial empire. There were times when the spirits in the lecture hall ran so high that I had to take a quick look at a map just to make sure that my "colonial empire" wasn't more than 12 kilometers across at some points.
But I was in for a big surprise in Australia. Shalom College -- a part of the New South Wales University in Sydney, is a center that provides housing for students who come to Australia from different places: Canada, Europe and India as well as the Muslim countries Indonesia and Malaysia. The center also houses students from Israel. The students, many of them studying sciences and medicine, must respect the fact that the center is Jewish. They serve kosher food and the residents must remember to keep the meat and dairy utensils separate. The students become accustomed to the dietary demands very quickly, and without complaints. Everything is done with grace and understanding.
Shalom College's website appeals to potential residents by boasting of the quality of the housing, the location, the respect for the students, the excellent study conditions and the ideal-sized rooms. And "because we respect multiculturalism." This is the very essence of cosmopolitan Judaism, just as French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas taught -- to respect the other. There is no coercion, no imposition, no brainwashing. The Jewish aspect is a natural part of this place and therefore it does not strike a dissonant chord with any of its guests.
The head of Shalom College, Dr. Hilton Immerman, invited me to give a lecture during a festive evening at the college. I have to admit that I was excited. The students and I ate a kosher meal together, and I have never seen so many foreign diners enjoy kosher food as much as these students did. I told them about how, when I was young, my situation was very similar to theirs, only reversed. My parents had opted to send me to foreign-run schools in Israel. At first it was a French elementary school, then it was a Scottish high school -- both located in Jaffa in close vicinity to each other. One was Catholic and the other was Protestant. Attending those schools, I, too, did not feel any threat to my religious affiliation. On the contrary, they were open and tolerant. Shalom College reminded me very much of the schools I attended in my youth. No teacher ever tried to convert me, but I learned a lot about faiths other than my own.
Shalom College, like other Jewish institutions, is unique in the world's academic landscape, which is mostly very hostile toward Israel. At an age when Israel is perceived as evil and Judaism is intrinsically linked with Israel, an institution like the one I encountered in Sydney is a breath of fresh air. It is no lie that Shalom College's greatest success is evident because it is open to everyone, and does not apologize for being Jewish. When Jews respect themselves, it is no wonder that others respect them, as well.
Boaz Bismuth was a guest of Shalom College in Australia.