The Debate on Campus Jewish Groups Coordinate Efforts to Help Students ‘take Back Campus’

With pro-Palestinian activists heating up college campuses around the country, nearly every Jewish organization, it seems, is going back to school.

And they are hitting the books with new strategies to help map out a pro-Israel agenda as classes begin.

A new body has been created, the Israel on Campus Coalition, in an effort to coordinate the various efforts and maximize the impact on students.

The group was put together by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which is funding several student programs and has invested a quarter of a million dollars to fund this project.

It hired Wayne Firestone, former director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League, as its director.

Based in Washington, the Israel on Campus Coalition will act as an information-sharing and planning agency for more than 20 Jewish organizations on campus, and a central clearinghouse for students and professionals.

Pro-Israel professionals from the elite consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, offered pro-bono services to assess the key lessons learned from the activities of the past year and the top priorities of each organization for the coming year.

In a document the company submitted to the Israel on Campus Coalition, it stated that the primary goal for this year should be to “take back the campus” by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet and coalitions.

It says that to affect public opinion on the campuses, the message should be to “make the case for Israel proactively: Don’t sound defensive about Israel, or argue about specific facts — instead, reframe the debate to emphasize Israel’s long history of democracy, peace and resistance to terror.”

“There’s never been a central location” for students or professionals on Jewish campus life, said Lisa Eisen, a program director of the Schusterman Foundation and chair of the new coalition’s steering committee.

That committee is comprised of representatives of Hillel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Council of Public Affairs and a rotating group of students and members from other participating Jewish organizations.

“They’re bombarded on campus by a number of different organizations,” Eisen said. The coalition will gather information from each organization, such as speakers bureaus and major events on campus, to create a “one-stop shop” for students and professionals.

Among the various initiatives that groups have taken with students:

Hillel bolstered its Israel programming with a major advocacy trip for 400 students to Israel this summer and continuing education for the participants, the establishment of a Campus Israel Affairs department last fall, and expansion of its speaker series begun last spring, originally funded by UJC, with a new grant from the Skirball Foundation.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has tripled the size of its budget and staffing for its student program. The pro-Israel lobby has traditionally worked with a pro-Israel group and its student head on every campus. This year, it is targeting 60 campuses, considered high-profile universities that produce large numbers of political leaders, or ones that are particularly inflammatory. And it is working with four activists per campus, each with distinct tasks, who will advise their peers at other schools.

Nearly 250 leaders from those campuses attended AIPAC’s three-day pro-Israel advocacy training in Washington in July where they were briefed by top political analysts, members of congress, diplomats and a variety of Jewish organizational heads.

Caravan for Democracy was launched by the Jewish National Fund, Media Watch International and the Hadassah-sponsored Hamagshimim, in January 2002 to showcase Israel’s democratic values. The group brought pro-Israel speaker to 29 campuses last year to speak to journalism students and the general population, and aims to visit 50 this year.

Earlier this month, Caravan brought 13 students on a two-week training seminar in Israel. Participants were Caravan activists last year, but they also had to be students who agreed to run for a leadership position on campus. While there, the students visited journalists, politicians and terror victims, and learned how to write letters to the editor or organize on campus.

The American Jewish Committee has circulated a letter sponsored by presidents and former presidents of major universities calling for an intimidation-free campus. Just over a week into its circulation, more than 250 university presidents have signed the statement.

Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity has created an Israel advocacy program for the first time. At its international convention this month, pro-Israel speakers briefed the 300 delegates, and 50 delegates trained intensively with Jewish leaders to gain advocacy training.

Israel is launching an “Israel at Heart” program to bring 13 teams of 42 Israeli students to tour college campuses in October to talk about their experience as young Israelis.

USD-Hagshama, the student division of the World Zionist Organization, is spearheading a “Buy Israel” campaign on campus.

The graduate center of the City University of New York is launching a forum on Israel studies, which is coordinating a network of academics who will speak out in support of Israel. Its goal is to establish key liaisons at hundreds of campuses around the country.

Organizations are also monitoring the efforts of Palestinian activists in an effort to counter their strategies on campus.

For instance, Jewish groups are aware of a speaking tour by Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi next month.

So the Israeli Consulate’s office of academic affairs in New York is bringing Yossi Olmert, a former Israeli government spokesman, to tour some of those same campuses.

Olmert proved very effective in countering Ashrawi last year, according to Michael Jankelowitz, Hillel’s director of Campus Israel Affairs.

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