Chutzpah or Good Pr? Sharansky Takes Pro-israel Message to Campus

With college students often accusing Israel of racism and war crimes, some might call it chutzpah to go to American campuses to make the case that Israel is the real champion of human rights in the Middle East.

But Natan Sharansky did just that last week, visiting 13 campuses on a tour sponsored by the Israel on Campus Coalition to argue that the Jewish state “shows more sensitivity to human rights than any other democracy.”

Sharansky’s history as a Soviet dissident and a political prisoner for nine years gave his message additional weight, said students who attended his Sept. 17 speech at George Washington University — many of them infants or toddlers when Sharansky was released from a Soviet prison and immigrated to Israel in 1986.

“As someone imprisoned in a society that didn’t believe in human rights, it gives him power and credibility as a spokesman for a democratic state,” GWU senior Gabriel Gershowitz said.

The speaking tour by the Israeli minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs was the first step in an attempt to “retake” the human rights agenda by Israel supporters, said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

Calling Sharansky a role model for the Jewish community, Israel and the fight for human rights, Firestone stressed the importance of making an “affirmative and pro-active” message about Israel.

“No one expects that overnight, human rights groups are going to get in line to support Israel,” Firestone said, but Sharansky’s visit “provides the opportunity to do coalition building” with some of those groups.

Students at a Sept. 19 speech at Columbia University said they were buoyed by Sharansky’s appearance.

Sophomore Benjamin Silver, 19, who said he plans to start a right-leaning Israel group on campus, said Sharansky helped reassure Jewish students who have had to endure a barrage of anti-Israel messages on campus, such as accusations that Israel is an apartheid state.

Amy Eisen, 21, a student from Concordia University in Montreal who was visiting Columbia for a conference of the North American Jewish Student Alliance, said that hearing Sharansky had inspired her to learn more about Israeli politics.

“I feel a personal attack” when Israel is criticized on campus, Eisen said, without feeling sufficiently informed to respond.

Sharansky’s tour also brought him to York University, the University of Toronto, Tufts, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, the University of Maryland, Georgetown, Princeton, Rutgers and New York University. On many of the campuses, Sharansky met with leaders of Jewish groups and other organizations.

During dinner with about 30 Jewish activists from George Washington and a handful from neighboring American University, Sharansky said he wanted to make Jewish college students proud of Israel. He also noted he was alarmed at the many Jews on campus who are “ashamed” of the Jewish state.

He recounted his visit to Harvard the previous day, where graduate students had told him they were “hesitant to show publicly their solidarity with Israel” because they were afraid of what their professors might think of them.

Students at the dinner discussed their efforts to promote and defend Israel on campus, and also asked for tips on how to argue Israel’s side on hotly debated issues, such as exiling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and building a security fence to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

Sharansky told JTA that each of the campuses he visited has “very powerful forces which try to turn Israel” into a monster, and “something which has no right to exist.”

The effects of such delegitimization were evident at Rutgers the day after Sharansky’s Sept. 18 speech, when vandals sprayed the campus’ Hillel house and the local chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national Jewish fraternity, with swastikas.

The incident was strongly repudiated by the university administration and is under investigation.

According to Sharansky, college campuses are “one of the most important battlefields” for Israel and for grooming young Jewish leaders.

Drawing on his experience as a Soviet refusenik, Sharansky told audiences to reject dictatorships and support democracies for the sake of human rights — for both Arabs and Jews.

“Commitment to peace comes only together with commitment to human rights and democracies,” Sharansky told a Columbia crowd, which gave him a standing ovation on Sept. 19.

To demonstrate Israel’s sensitivity to the value of life, he explained how Israeli troops went on foot into the Jenin refugee camp in a famous battle in April 2002, rather than by attacking from the air. The choice, which spared countless Palestinian lives, cost 23 Israeli soldiers their own.

Israel’s supporters should confront its critics by borrowing their opponents’ own human rights language.

At a private reception with student leaders, coordinated by Columbia’s LionPac, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee affiliate, Sharansky asked, If you believe in women’s rights, how do you explain Arab “honor” killings? How do you explain gay pride parades in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when homosexuals are persecuted in Arab countries?

Still, Sharansky said at a Sept. 18 speech at Princeton, the world often holds Israel to a double standard — perhaps as a result of anti-Semitism.

“I think what happened in the last three years, this anti-Semitic campaign — not only in Muslim countries, but also in Western Europe — and the very strong anti-Israel campaign, with its very clear double standard, created a situation where there is no difference between one and the other,” he said. “Jews in Israel see that anti-Semitism is also about them.”

At Rutgers, Sharansky told Jewish students, “We depend on those who are graduating universities. We must understand that it is our activism — your activism — that will decide whether the next generation of Jews will be proud to be Jews.”

Marissa Rosner, a senior from Teaneck, N.J., told Sharansky how she felt about being an active Zionist on the Rutgers campus.

“When we express support for Israel, we are at risk,” she said. “I told a liberal professor of mine that I wanted to move to Israel and his face went blank. I hope it doesn’t affect my grade.”

Not everyone was impressed by Sharansky’s message, however. At Rutgers, a protester hit Sharansky square in the face with a cherry cream pie.

Pie-thrower Abe Greenhouse, 25, a founding member of Central Jersey Jews Against the Occupation, accused Sharansky of abandoning his ideals.

“Minister Sharansky was at one time in his life a legitimate hero,” the Rutgers senior said in an interview. “However, I feel that he has since abandoned the commitment to human rights.”

As housing minister, Sharansky “has provoked the Palestinian populace at a crucial juncture at the fragile negotiating process by approving new settlement construction,” said Greenhouse, adding that he does not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Greenhouse, who was hospitalized for a black eye, broken nose and swollen lip after he was accosted by Sharansky’s security men, would not go into the details of the pie-throwing incident, claiming that it reflects a Jewish tradition of ridiculing one’s oppressors. He was charged with disorderly conduct.

Asked if he was distraught that a Jew attacked him, Sharansky said some Jews with noble goals support ignoble causes, like Communism or the Palestinian Authority regime.

“What they don’t understand” is that they are propping up the “most cruel dictators” and the “biggest enemies of human rights,” he said.

In any case, he said, the attacks on him have worked to his advantage.

After a bomb threat disrupted Sharansky’s speech and required a room change at Boston University, his audience nearly tripled to more than 500 people.

And after he returned to the Rutgers stage from washing off the cherry cream pie, Sharansky said the crowd was “full of electricity.”

They “all wanted immediately to go and fight for Israel,” he said.

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