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Jewish students’ complex political identity

Jewish students Jamie Weinstein, left, a member of the board of the Cornell College Republicans, and Michael Akavan, a former president of Cornell´s College Democrats, discuss politics on March 12 at Cornell University. (Rachel Pomerance)

Jewish students Jamie Weinstein, left, a member of the board of the Cornell College Republicans, and Michael Akavan, a former president of Cornell´s College Democrats, discuss politics on March 12 at Cornell University. (Rachel Pomerance)

NEW YORK, March 30 (JTA) — As president of the College Democrats at Cornell University last year, Michael Akavan avoided the topic of Israel. “I never brought it up,” Akavan said. It just didn’t seem necessary, he said at first. When pressed, however, he admitted that “you couldn’t be very pro-Israel and very involved with liberal groups on campus.” The occasional anti-Israel elements at Democratic rallies, he said, “really rubbed me the wrong way.” The difference in the way College Republican and College Democrat groups have approached the topic of Israel on campus — home to some of the most vigorous debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — may influence Jewish students’ votes for president in November. Republicans have made the war on terrorism paramount, embracing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and pro-Israel policy in that vision. Democrats have focused more on domestic issues and have allowed anti-war and anti-Israel voices into their fold. With student activism and interest in world politics rising since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — they were further invigorated by former presidential candidate Howard Dean’s outreach on campus — many Jewish students are paying close attention to the presidential race. It’s also the first presidential election since serious campus activism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in light of the Palestinian intifada. Most Jewish students are expected to mirror Jews nationally and students in general by voting Democratic. But a range of Jewish students think a chunk of their demographic, including disenchanted Democrats, will vote for President Bush because of his support for Israel. It may be a by-product of the fact that “the anti-Israel people on campus are affiliated with the liberal causes,” said Noam Haberman, a senior at New York University and vice president of Gesher, a pro-Israel group on campus. According to Harvard junior Jonathan Abel, who covers the election for The Harvard Crimson, Bush’s war on terrorism resonates with Jews and will sway those on the fence. But with college campuses generally bastions of liberalism, many say that students who support Bush do so quietly. “They’re probably not going to go out and campaign for him, but it’s likely they’ll end up voting for him,” Haberman said. The political identification of American Jewish college students is complex, however. While Israel is a key issue, it’s not the only one: Students also list concerns such as gay rights, reproductive rights and job security. “Many Jewish students are sort of grappling with this political identity crisis,” said Daniel Frankenstein, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. While President Bush “presents a far more solid record on Israel,” the Democratic Party better represents the social values of many Jewish students, Frankenstein said. At the same time, some say that both presidential candidates are sufficiently pro-Israel that the topic is not among Jewish students’ main concerns. “Many Jewish students are not that concerned which candidate they vote for on Israel, because Bush has proven support on Israel and Kerry has expressed support on Israel,” he said. Cornell University senior Lee Hart said the Jewish community’s clout, and America’s interest in allying with a Mideast democracy, mean that almost any presidential candidates would voice support for Israel. “It would be very difficult to convince me that a leading politician that made it this far was anti-Israel,” he said. Of more immediate concern to the graduating senior, who hopes to become an international lawyer, is finding the candidate who can redress America’s faltering job market and international reputation. According to Hasdai Westbrook, the editor of New Voices, a national Jewish student magazine, the intense political activity around the intifada has produced a sense of “Israel fatigue” on campus. “There’s only a certain amount of crisis outreach you can do before a certain amount of fatigue sets in,” Westbrook said. As a result, “Israel as a whole just has not been the sort of litmus test political issue that I would have expected it to be.” Still, many Jewish students do care strongly about Israel. That was illustrated by a recent “West Wing and Ben & Jerry’s” party at the Columbia University Hillel, during an episode in which the fictional administration scrutinized Israel’s anti-terrorist efforts. Students appeared nervous that Israel might be portrayed negatively. “Go Israel!” one student cheered when a limousine carrying the Israeli prime minister was shown arriving at the White House. Some Jewish students who identify as Democrats have tried to strengthen their party’s ties to Israel. As a result, some say it’s becoming easier to square pro-Israel interests with domestic ones within Democratic groups on campus. And despite Bush’s support for Israel, some are taking the president to task. “Bush hasn’t been entirely hard on the Israel line,” said Rebecca Rubins, a Harvard junior who went on the campaign trail with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) during his presidential run. There were times, she said, when Bush “has encouraged Israel to hold back.” Others say pressuring Israel might not necessarily be a bad thing. Some also question Bush’s war on terrorism and the possibility that it could distract attention from socio-economic issues. Homeland security is a “big show” from the Bush administration, said Cornell’s Akavan, citing the government’s privatization of certain security measures and its failure to capture Osama Bin Laden. Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that many Jewish students haven’t yet decided whom to vote for, and their opinions will be “heavily influenced by the media and the buzz on campus” as elections approach. Columbia senior Noah Liben agreed. The former president of Lionpac, a pro-Israel group on campus, Liben said he will need “at least a few head-to-head debates” to see the candidates “flesh out the issues” on Israel, the Middle East and homeland security.

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