Hillel program teaches students to defend Israel

HONESDALE, Pa., Aug. 27 (JTA) — Dusk was blanketing the Pocono Mountains as Katie Wells stood on the grass a few yards from hundreds of students dancing to Israeli folk tunes.

A sophomore at Ohio State University, Wells had spent the day attending sessions on Zionism and Israel’s history, a sort of crash course in how to promote Israel on campus.

She wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

“I’m so unknowledgeable” about Israel, she said.

Wells’ feelings were not atypical at the Schusterman Hillel International Student Leaders Assembly, a five-day retreat that, for the first time in years, had devoted a full day to Israel advocacy. The other days were devoted to leadership training and Jewish learning.

“Some people here can pull out all the Oslo details and pull all this knowledge out, while others of us are trying to figure out just the basics,” she said.

But as the sun set over the rustic camp, Wells, like many of the assembly’s 388 student participants — all of whom either were Hillel activists or were chosen for their leadership potential — still had not become a hard-core advocate for the Jewish state.

The Israel advocacy day, she said, was “definitely rejuvenating and very positive, but also kind of hard to swallow because it’s so pro-Israel,” she said.

As the organized Jewish community tries to mobilize campus support for Israel, it faces a Jewish student body that not only lacks the confidence to defend Israel but is not entirely certain what to believe.

Last fall, pro-Palestinian students mobilized rapidly after the Al-Aksa Intifada began, bringing in speakers, posting anti-Israel fliers, raising placards denigrating Zionism as racism and Nazism, and building mock Israeli checkpoints and Palestinian refugee camps.

On the campus of one New York university, Palestinians copied recruitment fliers for Birthright Israel — a program offering young Jews free trips to Israel — with the message that while Jews are visiting Israel, Palestinians are being killed.

Many Arab and Muslim student groups seem willing to champion the Palestinian cause unquestioningly, but Jewish students appear far more ambivalent.

Brian Jaffee, director of Hamagshimim, the university movement sponsored by Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said most American Jewish students lack the education and emotional connections to Israel “to be that passionate about it.”

Adding to the challenge, Jaffee said, is that “students by their very nature want to not offend anyone.”

“They want to be good universal humanists and first and foremost care about human rights. It’s tough for them to appear that they’re taking sides on any issue,” Jaffee said.

The students at the retreat who did feel passionately about Israel — many wore T-shirts with their college names transliterated into Hebrew — expressed frustration at what they see as apathy from their Jewish classmates.

Several said that while their Muslim and Arab counterparts are organizing rallies, they still struggle to get most Jewish students to participate in occasional Hillel events.

Last year the pro-Palestinian students “were right on top of it and we were, like, ‘whoa,’ ” said Robyn Weisman, a sophomore at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “We have a hard time finding the Jewish kids and getting them to come to events.”

Weisman, who participated in Birthright Israel this year, seemed eager to mobilize Jewish students on Israel’s behalf, but other participants barely felt equipped to talk about the Jewish state.

Many students said they felt overwhelmed sorting through the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and still did not know how to respond to anti-Israel rhetoric.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, president of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel and former executive vice president of the United Israel Appeal, said, “I did a session on what do you say to Mohammed, and a kid said, ‘I don’t know enough to talk to him, so I would avoid it.’ “

“They need to be encouraged, and this is clearly an encouragement,” Allen said of Hillel’s Israel Advocacy Day.

Sessions ranged from “Why Are They Saying Those Terrible Things About Israel?” to “The ABCs of Zionist Legitimacy: How to Feel More Secure about Discussing Israel on Campus,” and “Programming for Peace, Tolerance and Coexistence.”

Students also received packets of information from Hillel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hamagshimim. Materials included basic talking points, responses to common charges against Israel and tips for organizing rallies, vigils and other events.

Organizers pitched Israel in other ways as well, broadcasting Israeli pop music from the camp loudspeakers at one point, serving a dinner of Middle Eastern food and hosting an Israeli cultural fair.

A common theme was the need to be proactive, seek help from the organized Jewish community and not let pro-Palestinian students set the agenda.

In a keynote speech, Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told students they were on the “front lines” of defending Israel.

“As students, you are energetic, inquisitive, have research skills and are computer literate if not computer geniuses,” he said. “That makes you potent.”

Ben-David urged students to write term papers on topics such as the history of Israel’s right to exist and human rights violations in the Arab world, then use the information to write Op-Ed pieces in their campus newspapers or to speak on campus.

He also suggested holding commemorative vigils marking the 100th day since the suicide bombing of a pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem and calling on Arab and Muslim student groups to sign declarations condemning all violence against civilians.

“Put them on the spot — it’s a position they haven’t been in,” Ben- David said.

But not all the students seemed comfortable being cheerleaders for Israel.

Some said they weren’t certain whether to trust the materials they received at the advocacy day, and others emphasized that they do not support all Israeli policies.

Zachary Gerson of Stanford University said he has “really mixed views.” While he supports Israel, Gerson said, “that doesn’t mean I support everything about it.”

“I’ve been disappointed with the uncompromising attitudes both sides are taking,” he said.

Despite the battering Israel has taken on many campuses this year, few students had much appetite for anti-Palestinian publicity campaigns.

When one student asked Ben-David how to spread propaganda about the Palestinians, another student won applause for responding, “conditions should never be so bad that we have to lower ourselves to that level.”

Malkie Karkowsky, a student at the University of Maryland who participated in a new pro-Israel leadership training program this summer, the Emet Fellows, said, “It’s very hard because you want to be, ‘Boo, Palestinians, Yea Israelis,’ but you know that’s not going to lead to the ultimate goal.” While the advocacy day might not completely reverse the apathy and timidity vis-a-vis Israel, several students said it gave them food for thought.

Jonathan Delshad, a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles, said he received “good advice” about sticking to a positive message when defending Israel, and got some good programming ideas.

Hamagshimim’s Jaffee expressed optimism that Jewish students will be more active this year than last.

“Students are getting their legs under them and figuring out ways to care about the issue,” he said.

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