On January 20, pro-Israel activist and podcast host Rabbi Yishai Fleisher spoke to a crowd of between 70 and 80 students in what was advertised as a “Mega-Shabbat.” The event was co-hosted by Florida State University’s Chabad, Hillel, and Jewish Student Union (JSU).
During his visit to Florida State, the Capitol Collegian had the opportunity to interview Rabbi Fleisher about the event, his background, and his advice to college students for combatting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces.
DAVID GLASSER: First, I think readers would like to know a bit about your background, just know where you come from, some of your history and your career, et cetera.
RABBI FLEISHER: Well, I was born in Haifa, Israel, to Russian secular parents. They moved when I was eight to the United States to Wayne, New Jersey. We became more observant Jewishly in those years. When I was 17, I went back to Israel. I served in the IDF, as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army. And I also studied in Yeshiva, which means Jewish thought and law. And then I went back to America for another seven years after that, when I was 21, for undergraduate at Yeshiva University and then Cardozo Law School. And then when I finished there, we moved to Israel. That was about 20 years ago. And I served as the director of two radio stations, English language radio stations. And for the last seven years, I’ve been the spokesman — the foreign, English language spokesman — for the Jewish community of Hebron, which is a hotspot, a controversial city, a “settlement,” and a place where the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs — a very famous shrine in Hebron — exists.
DAVID GLASSER: You were here at Florida State for a “Mega-Shabbat” event between Chabad, Hillel, and Jewish Student Union. Can you talk a little bit about that event and what you discussed during it?
RABBI FLEISHER: Well, I had the great privilege of being invited. And I came all the way up from Israel, a 14-hour flight to Miami, then a flight up here, and I came for this Shabbat, which is basically a Sabbath get-together dinner of three Jewish organizations: the Jewish Student Union, the Chabad, and the Hillel. And that gathering, the tripartite gathering, had not happened in a long time. And so it was really special for me to be the person speaking at that. And it was a dinner, it was just a Friday night dinner, with these groups, with a lot of Jewish kids on campus and students. And then, what did I speak about? I wanted to pick a theme that was about being able to connect disparate groups or ideas. And so, the theme that I talked about was King David and Goliath, the famous battle between King David and Goliath. And I basically painted it in two different ways, which is, one way is that it was an act of faith, of this young David battling this giant Goliath, just with faith and with the name of God with him — and with the honor of God and the honor of Israel.
And so it was all about faith in God and was an irrational and unlikely victory — versus the concept that David actually chose superior firepower instead of facing this kind of very immobile, very static enemy. That instead, he fought with a fast-moving lightning strike, with artillery, and with using the newest technology. And I asked the question, “Which one is it?” Is it faith or is it science? How did he win? And I said, really, it’s both. And in many ways, that’s what Israel today, modern Israel, is. It’s a country of faith, it’s a country with God — but at the same time using the best technology possible to defeat our enemies. And we actually employ both of those things at the same time. And when you employ those things, when you employ them together, that’s where real strength is. And then from there, I try to tie that into this idea of Jewish unity on campus here.
DAVID GLASSER: And more on the topic of Israel, you and I have both seen the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. So, given your experience with that, what do you think is the best way for Jewish students or students generally to push back against those forces?
RABBI FLEISHER: Well, they’re big, that’s the truth. There’s a big force out there. And the folks like Kanye West did not help that situation by making anti-Semitism “cool.” There are a few steps. I can’t say that we’re going to be able to defeat it altogether. I guess the first thing is to have internal steel and an internal sense of “this is my identity,” I’m going to be proud of it. And if they’re going to hate me for being a Jew, then that’s wrong and immoral on their part, but I’m going to keep my path. A way to do that also here on campus is to really get together with other fellow Jews to actually use it as an advantage. There is a certain advantage in anti-Semitism. It brings us together. It brings us into our safe spaces inside. But I don’t mean safe spaces like fearful safe spaces. I mean to say like the Chabad or Hillel or the Jewish Student Union. You come together, you actually meet people like yourself, and thereby you propagate the people, you know what I mean? You meet a nice girl, boy, you meet the society that’s going to make a difference in your life.
And that’s exactly what the anti-Semites want to do, is they want to break us apart. So, if we kind of gather into our formations, then that’s good. But at the same time, never let them bully you, you know what I mean? If it’s physical, I think that Jews have to know how to be strong and how to push back. And if it’s a narrative, Jews have to be able to say simple things. Like when it comes to Israel, for example, I want everybody to be able to say, “It’s our land.” Just say that phrase. Just let’s say, be like, “No, it’s our land, “and other simple phrases that give us common sense and buttress our gut feeling about the truth. We have to learn and implement certain key words. We are the indigenous people of the land of Israel. We have every right to exist. Our religion is ancient. We are an ancient people. There’s these narratives that help us.
And, of course, going to Israel is a way to fortify your Jewish identity and your religious identity, and your national identity. And another thing is, I think one of the things that I noticed yesterday was that somebody said, you know, we as a religion, and I have to stop them right there and say, “We’re not a religion.” We’re a peoplehood. And when you identify as a peoplehood, that’s what — when you go to Israel — that’s what happens. You’re like, oh, this is a peoplehood. I think it’s very, very important to identify as a peoplehood, and when people get that sense, they’ll be a lot stronger.