In the aftermath of disruptive protests on college campuses across this country in which activists sought to sever all connections between American universities and Israel, the less visible but much more consequential battle is underway.

At Rutgers University, protesters occupying the campus were cleared on Thursday, May 2, after college officials agreed to meet with activists to discuss their demands. In the social media feedback that followed, supporters of Israel feared that the college had conceded to their demands in exchange for the voluntary disbanding of the standoff.

“Some people have wrongly come to believe that Rutgers agreed to divest from companies that do business in Israel. We did not. We have a policy already in place for investment decisions and we are adhering to it and the process that flows from it. We did agree to meet with the students who made the request and nothing more,” Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway wrote in a statement on Monday, May 6.

“I think divestment from Israel is wrong. I believe that enlightenment comes from involvement and that lasting progress and peace are the outcomes of diplomacy and discussion.” He went on to say that the school’s relationship with Tel Aviv University will not be severed and the protesters’ demands to share credits with a Palestinian university have been in place since 2022.

On the same day, activists also voluntarily disbanded their encampment at SUNY Purchase College after President Milagros Pena agreed to discuss their demands. “After five and a half hours of negotiating, after five days of working in an encampment at SUNY Purchase for the freedom of Palestine, we were able to get Mili Pena to agree to all of our demands in some capacity and we were able to get everything we wanted,” an activist told an assembled crowd on campus.

In a later Instagram post, the group Raise the Consciousness at SUNY Purchase clarified that the school had not divested from Israel because “NY has very strict anti-BDS laws unfortunately, and we are a public college, so our resolution had to be worded very specifically.”

By now, most of the encampments have been dismantled by police officers, and participants hauled away in handcuffs, but their battle to isolate Israel and its supporters continues in other venues. These include student governments, boards of trustees, faculty unions, professional organizations, legislatures, and courtrooms. It is a much less visible struggle in which the most involved activists will be present, but whose results will determine whether colleges will recognize credits earned from studying in Israel, collaborate with Israeli institutions and researchers, and whether pro-Israel student organizations can expect the same respect as any other campus affinity group or fraternity.

Like my colleague Jared Feldschreiber, who bore witness to the hate expressed by activists at a rally in Washington on April 27, I did the same a day earlier at my alma mater, City College of New York in upper Manhattan. I walked into the encampment to record the slogans, images, and occupation of a public space. I did not announce my presence, opting to quietly walk among the tents and posters as Muslim prayers blared from a loudspeaker. I was pleasantly surprised that the Stars and Stripes continued to fly atop the flagpole on the quad, but beneath it was a Palestinian flag with a poster underneath renaming the state’s oldest public college as “The Intifada University.”

It was a sunny day and the scene appeared calm, with police standing at a considerable distance from the encampment. I understood that the situation would change once the college gave the protesters the deadline to disband or risk arrest. The weather was good, so I rested on a bench a few feet from an individual wearing a watermelon-themed kippah identifying himself as an anti-Zionist. I then removed my baseball cap to reveal a black velvet kippah.

“What the [expletive] are you doing here taking pictures of us without permission?” a masked activist quickly confronted me.

“This is a public space, and you can consult your lawyer on whether the law allows me to take photographs. Also, how do you know my views on Palestine? I never disclosed them, and the yarmulke on my head is not an indicator of my views. After all, there’s another individual here with a yarmulke.”

They walked away. At the edge of the encampment was a BBC reporter with a field producer and cameraman. I introduced myself as a former president of CCNY Hillel visiting the campus for a firsthand experience of the unrest. The reporter interviewed me and promised that the story would appear online within a day. I felt proud to have given the Religious Zionist viewpoint to balance her story of pro-Hamas demonstrators.

Shabbos came and went, but the story did not appear on BBC. As usual, the Ivy League university 20 blocks to the south of CCNY got all the attention. I was naive to expect a fair shake from BBC and should have learned from the experience of Rabbi YY Rubinstein. The Scotland-born lecturer had been a presenter on BBC for three decades, but in 2022 he had enough of the corporation’s biased coverage towards Israel and anti-Semitism.

As a rule, I believe in engaging, and that was how I spent my years on campus, by running for student government, writing in the campus newspaper, and organizing Jewish events. CCNY has a long history as a hotbed for progressive activism. Looking back, perhaps my life would have turned out differently had I chosen a college with a larger Jewish student body, or a Jewish-run college, but everything that happens in life has reasons.

At this moment, Jewish leaders are emerging on campuses across the nation, shaped by their experiences standing up to crowds, speaking before hostile audiences, making sure that the Jewish viewpoint is not misrepresented by leftist Jews who have no serious connection with Judaism. Future Jewish leaders will emerge from this moment with the same determination to defend our values as previous generations of Jews who overcame wars and persecutions, strengthening our identity and observance.

By Sergey Kadinsky