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American Student Leaders Return from Israel Pledging Their Support

Kory Ickler, student body president of Creighton University, a Catholic school in Omaha, Neb., used to feel inhibited talking to Jews because he had only minimal familiarity and contact with them.

Now, however, after returning from a recent trip to Israel, Ickler said the barriers have fallen.

The evidence? While he was stranded for 12 hours in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport waiting for his return flight home, he walked over to a complete stranger — a man wearing a yarmulke — and started talking about Israel and his recent trip.

Todd Chrzanowski, who lives in the self-described “white, Christian world” of small-town northern Minnesota, said his idea of Israel as “a stuffy, conservative society” was quickly dispelled by the “energy” of Tel Aviv and the bar scene in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Jennifer Tschetter, a political science and economics major at South Dakota State University, also had several misconceptions of Jews and Israel dispelled by her visit to Israel earlier this month, which was sponsored by Project Interchange of the American Jewish Committee.

Tschetter said she was worried about security and violence, but “felt very safe” once in Israel. The trip, she said, also gave her a “new understanding and appreciation for Judaism, not just as a religion, but as an enduring culture.”

Tschetter said that her perception before the trip of Jews as a whole was solely based on “textbooks and stereotypes.”

Ickler, Chrzanowski and Tschetter were three of the 11 student leaders who were flown to Israel for Project Interchange’s eight-day seminar, which exposed them to the complexities of Israeli society. They explored issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab-Jewish coexistence, U.S.-Israeli relations, history, religion, archaeology, immigration and Zionism.

CHOSEN FROM STATES WITH FEW JEWISH STUDENTS

The student body leaders, who are not Jewish, were chosen from schools in the Midwest and Plains states that have few Jewish students and that have had student body presidents go on to hold state and national political offices, according to Lisa Eisen, executive director of Project Interchange.

For the past 12 years, Project Interchange has sponsored seminars in Israel for some 1,200 ethnic and religious leaders, members of Congress and students. They are designed to educate the American leaders about Israel and to promote cooperation between the two countries.

This most recent trip was the first held specifically for college student body presidents.

Eisen said the goal of the educational seminar was to “give a general overview of Israeli society and the challenges it faces” to student leaders who have not been exposed to Judaism and the Middle East.

“The perfect time to educate future American leaders about Israel is when they are young,” Eisen said.

By meeting with Israeli and Arab student leaders, kibbutz members and soldiers their age, according to Eisen, the students will have some “personal connection” to Israel and its people, which will benefit American-Israeli relations in the future.

“We don’t give a whitewash of Israel,” Eisen said, referring to the many points of view presented to the students. “We let them draw their own conclusions.”

In the end, Eisen said, most of the participants “come out with a positive view of Israel.”

Some future “tangible effects” of the trip, according to Eisen, may be support for Israel when and if students reach Congress or favorable trade relationships between Israel and states in which they might hold influential offices.

“When these people move up to state and national leadership positions they will have a personal connection and understanding and will be sensitive to Israel’s concerns,” Eisen said.

Hypothesizing about future positions in Congress, both Ickler and Chrzanowski said their experiences in Israel and their better understanding of Israel’s goals would most likely influence them favorably on issues dealing with Israel.

“I see and understand the goals of Israel now,” Ickler said.

PLAN TO HELP EDUCATE PEERS

Tschetter said that if elected to Congress, she would be “in favor of keeping U.S. support for Israel” strong.

In the meantime, as leaders on their college campuses, the students are planning to use their experiences to educate their peers.

The 11 students, according to Chrzanowski, a political science major at the University of North Dakota, have already discussed the possibility of holding conferences or presentations on their campuses to share their experiences with fellow students and to inform them about the “complexities of the situation” in Israel.

Tschetter, saying she has “an obligation to share” her experiences with others, already has over 20 speaking engagements at churches, local clubs and even a synagogue in her home state of South Dakota.

She said she will work to coordinate a conference on Judaism and Israel for Midwestern colleges and universities and will invite representatives from AJCommittee to speak to students.

Having met with people representing various political views in Israel — right- and left-wing Israelis, Israeli Arab citizens and Arabs from the territories — Chrzanowski also said he has a “responsibility to inform people” and to “lay out the facts” so people can decide for themselves.

However, he said he will caution people “not to make hasty decisions” about the region solely based on what they read in the newspapers or hear on television, because the “dynamics” of the region are so complex.

Although they toured the country from the Golan Heights to Masada, the American student politicians were especially fascinated with how student governments in Israel differ from student governments on college campuses in America, reflecting political allegiances.

Summing up the feelings of his fellow students, Ickler said, “Across the board we all felt extremely privileged to be allowed the experience. I would go back again in a flash.”

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