Israel forces may be winning campuses

College students gather recently in Washington for an AIPAC advocacy training seminar. (Ron Sachs/CNP)

College students gather recently in Washington for an AIPAC advocacy training seminar.

(Ron Sachs/CNP)

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (JTA) — A conference room filled with suits is nothing unusual in this town — except when the suits are all filled by college students. As part of an initiative to groom a new generation of pro-Israel activists on campus, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee brought 240 students to Washington for four all-expense-paid days of intense advocacy training. When pro-Palestinian activism swept the country’s college campuses after the intifada began in September 2000, it seemed that nearly every Jewish organization hatched plans to “take back the campus.” The different groups often work together through a coordinating body, the Israel on Campus Coalition, that formed last fall. The effort appears to be working: Students say the anti-Israel forces are on the wane on campus. Within the Jewish community, there are “clearly differences of opinion when it comes to how to deal with detractors of Israel,” said Daniel Frankenstein, 21, a junior at the University of California at Berkeley, where he leads several secular campus groups. AIPAC doesn’t advocate for any specific policy, but pounds out a simple message about the necessity of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, he said. AIPAC teaches students the benefits of the relationship to the United States and shows them how to pass that message along to campus leaders. “I knew why to advocate for Israel, but it was AIPAC that taught me how,” said Jesse Gabriel, 21. His cufflinks shining, the suave Gabriel, Berkeley’s student body president, explained that AIPAC showed him how to engage the “important people on campus,” including student leaders. At its first such conference this summer — the Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar — AIPAC stressed three objectives for student activists: circulating pro-Israel petitions, bringing a member of Congress to campus and holding Israel forums. At the second Saban conference this weekend, AIPAC added three more objectives: having campus activists visit Congressional district offices, convincing campus newspapers to write pro-Israel editorials and getting faith-based groups on campus to issue statements of solidarity with Israel. The conferences are a segment of the Schusterman Advocacy Institute, an expansion of AIPAC’s 20-year-old student program. The program now focuses on 60 campuses, chosen because they have large Jewish populations and feed Congress with future leaders. On each campus, AIPAC works with four “portfolioed” activists — each with his or her own designated tasks — to turn Jewish leaders into pro-Israel activists. AIPAC officials say the new initiative will continue even if Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement — because it still will be necessary to educate Jewish and non-Jewish students about Israel, the group says. “This is the antidote to the apathy and an antidote to the entropy which could erode the U.S.-Israel alliance, even if Israel’s detractors weren’t hell-bent on driving a wedge between the two countries,” said Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s leadership development director. Workshop attendants, most of whom are “portfolioed activists” on their campuses, say the challenge is raising the interest level among students. “There’s more ambivalence than there is anti-Israel” sentiment on campus, said Arielle Bernstein, 21, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. But a key inroad was circulating a petition of solidarity with Israel, she said. “It was the catalyst for a dialogue” and a “start to educate people,” she said. Currently, 13 of the 60 campuses targeted in the initiative have published pro-Israel petitions in their campus newspapers. In all, about 40,000 signatures have been collected, with a goal of 120,000 by AIPAC’s policy conference in late March. AIPAC trains the activists to sway opinion by targeting campus leaders. “AIPAC said, ‘Become friends with them, meet them for coffee,’ ” said Toby Osofsky, 22, a senior at the University of North Carolina, where she is the AIPAC campus liaison. Osofsky can interest and influence campus leaders with exclusive offers. With AIPAC’s help, Osofsky arranged a 50-person lunch with Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and made an opportunity for certain guests, including the student body president, to have some private time with Regev. One challenge is to reach those on the left as well as on the right. But many say that focusing on the American perspective of the U.S.-Israel relationship can supersede politics. “Whatever side of the aisle you’re on, this is an important issue for America,” Bernstein said. “What they’re modeling for us is their national strategy,” Bernstein said, referring to AIPAC’s success in securing support from both parties at the congressional level. “AIPAC is in the relationship-building business,” the group’s leadership development deputy director, Brian Jaffee, said in a discussion of bridging the partisan gap. “We see friends and we see potential friends.” Meanwhile, AIPAC sees itself as part of a broader Jewish communal effort to make campuses pro-Israel. “Activists, not AIPACists,” the group’s “campus creed” reads. For their part, students seem to think that Jewish organizations are doing a good job cooperating to equip them with resources. The anti-Israel activists are losing ground, they say. According to Frankenstein, there is a difference between the anti-Israel movement and the pro-Israel one. While the former are a small group of activists, the latter is an “entire Jewish community that has come together and said in unison, ‘We stand for Israel, we stand for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, we are proud to be Jewish and we stand up for what we believe in.’ ” For Frankenstein, the momentum has made a personal difference. “I felt scared to be openly Jewish,” he said, fearing a personal attack at Berkeley — a site of virulent anti-Israel activism, culminating in a brick thrown through the campus Hillel last spring and the takeover of a university building by pro-Palestinian activists. Now the “pervading sense is that we have taken back the campus” from “people who hate the State of Israel and are anti-Semitic,” Gabriel said. The two anti-Israel protests on campus this year were puny, he said. And Frankenstein once again feels comfortable wearing his Israeli soccer jersey on campus. □

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