By Maayan Jaffe
Jewish organizations and leaders have been racking their brains trying to address the issue of skyrocketing anti-Semitism on college campuses. But at least one prominent pro-Israel activist is reassured by the presence of a student more than five decades his junior.
“Justin Hayet lets me sleep at night,” says Alan Dershowitz, the 76-year-old former Harvard Law School professor.
The laundry list of recent anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses isn’t pretty. Swastikas were painted on the building of a Jewish fraternity house at University of California, Davis. Jewish candidates for student government at University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford University have been grilled about their religion. A Jewish professor at Connecticut College has been persecuted over false accusations that he called for the annihilation of the Palestinians.
“Right now is a time of fear,” says Gilad Skolnick, director of campus programming for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). “We continue to see an uptick in anti-Semitism on campus and it scares students from doing what they are supposed to do at university-engage in educational and open discourse.”
Enter Justin Hayet, a 21-year-old student at Binghamton University – State University of New York, who says that while many of his peers “run away and try to ignore” anti-Semitism, he is “running toward it.”
“I want to fix it,” Hayet tells JNS.org.
On May 3, Hayet will receive CAMERA’s David Bar-Illan Award for Outstanding Campus Activism award at the media watchdog organization’s annual gala dinner. Chloe Valdary, a pro-Israel student at the University of New Orleans, will receive a similar award. The David Bar-Illan Award is given in memory of the renowned Israeli editor, musician, and policy leader to students who are making Israel’s case on campuses that are often ideological battlegrounds.
“Who is going to replace us?” Dershowitz tells JNS.org, speculating on a day when well-known Jewish leaders like himself, Irwin Cotler, and Elie Wiesel are no longer part of the picture. “Justin Hayet-this is a guy who can really become a major leader in the pro-Israel community.”
Hayet has deep black hair, an inquisitive brow, and a personality that CAMERA’s Skolnick describes as “passionate” and “optimistic.” Originally from Pikesville, Md., Hayet served as a CAMERA Fellow for the 2013-14 academic year. He hosted a pro-Israel event that drew more than 135 students from diverse backgrounds to hear Israel Defense Forces Lt. Colonel Anat Berko discuss the motivations of suicide bombers who are women and children. He penned multiple pro-Israel letters to the editor in his college newspaper, was published in the Jerusalem Post, and was interviewed by Israel’s Channel 1 network about the pro-Israel movement on college campuses. He is featured in the Jerusalem U film “Crossing the Line 2,” which provides an in-depth look at the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses, the vitriol of organizations such as SJP, and the steadfast determination of Jewish students in the face of such attacks.
All this, and Hayet was not even raised in a particularly Zionist family, says his mother, Cheryl Hayet. But Cheryl says she “always encouraged my son to follow his dreams.”
In 2008, Hayet decided he wanted to visit Israel. He enrolled in a leadership development opportunity through the local Jewish Community Center. In 2009, he traveled to Israel with that group.
“When he got back, the next words were, ‘How do I get back?'” Cheryl Hayet recalls.
Justin Hayet found more than one way, traveling to Israel eight times between 2009 and today. His visits included one to Baltimore’s sister city, Ashkelon, as a Diller Teen Fellow. It was that trip that charted his course.
“Standing on the beaches of Ashkelon, I said, ‘What can I do to help?'” Hayet reflects. “I was too young for the army, but I saw myself as part of Israel’s army-here in the States, to fight for Israel, to make Israel a little better, bigger, and more respected.”
Hayet looked for an organization that would give him a vehicle for his passion for Israel advocacy. CAMERA was that match, offering him the creative platform to be as expressive as possible on his campus. He later signed on as a recruiter for The Jewish Agency for Israel’s MASA (Israel Journey) program.
Amid the abundance of negative messaging about Israel on campuses, getting students interested in studying abroad in the Jewish state is no easy task, says Samantha Robins, recruitment manager for MASA. But Hayet has been among the program’s most successful recruiters. When the students don’t come to him, “he goes and finds them,” Robins tells JNS.org.
To be an Israel advocate, Dershowitz says, “You have to know everything.” He explains that pro-Israel activists are constantly bombarded with false information. A true voice for Israel needs to be on top of every news story, have the resources to respond to false allegations, and be a flexible thinker, according to Dershowitz. Moreover, there is an imperative to present the facts in a compelling way and with unbounded energy.
“For pro-Israel advocates, there is no vacation,” says Dershowitz, who met Hayet through Israel advocacy work.
Israel advocates also need a thick skin, he says.
“There will be people who attack you, hate you, demean you, try to destroy you at every point,” Dershowitz says.
CAMERA-affiliated students have indeed come under attack, Skolnick says. In 2014, CAMERA Fellow Daniel Vessal was punched in the face on his Temple University campus by a violent member of SJP.
But Hayet is not afraid.
“People look at anti-Israel activity as only ‘bad.’ Every time I see these people, my blood boils,” he says. Through that reaction, the anger Hayet feels serves as an internal reminder that he is still strongly and emotionally attached to the Jewish homeland.
This summer, Hayet will intern for Israel’s largest English-language daily newspaper, the Jerusalem Post. While working under the newspaper’s chief political correspondent and analyst, Gil Hoffman, Hayet says he hopes to gain a better understanding of how the Knesset legislature works and to deliver a message to Israeli leaders: “You have enormous support from so many young people, like me.”
Dershowitz says, “I just wish there were more Justins.”