A cadre of students hit the pro-Israel books early this summer, studying techniques ahead of what is promising to be one of Israel’s toughest seasons on campus in the wake of the Lebanon war. The difference for these activists is that they’re not Jewish.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee says there are currently about 400 non-Jewish activists trained in its programs at schools as disparate as the Ivy Leagues, state schools, Christian institutions and traditionally black colleges.
Of those, about 70 joined 300 Jewish student activists in late July in a four-day leadership training seminar that focused on dealing with the aftermath of Israel’s war against the Hezbollah terrorist group.
“The face of AIPAC on campus is the face of America,” said Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s leadership development director. “It’s also the future of the American pro-Israel movement.”
Kessler said AIPAC wants to expand pro-Israel activism to traditionally untapped groups of students, seeking out campuses with small or no Jewish populations.
In January, AIPAC underwrote a mission to Israel to educate 43 non-Jewish students, including the presidents of the National College Democrats and College Republican National Committee.
In interviews, participants in the programs reveal the same anxieties and ambitions their Jewish counterparts face: They want to blunt the effects of media images by providing context. Some hope to book pro-Israel politicians and former Israeli soldiers for campus talks.
“Yes, what people see on television will shape their opinions,” said Amanda Wilkerson, a senior political science major at Florida A & M University, a historically black institution. But the conflict violence also “gives us a chance to show that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is hiding in homes.”
Wilkerson said her past AIPAC training — she was not at the July workshop — and her on-campus experience was helping her steel for increased anti-Israel activism this year.
“Two years ago, I had people saying it couldn’t be done on an historically black campus, that there was no interest in Israel,” said Wilkerson, who in the past month has been peppered with dozens of phone calls from students interested in learning more about the Middle East violence. She says she sometimes spends hours explaining the conflict.
Wilkerson’s interest in Israel was piqued when she was assigned the nation for a project in a comparative politics course. She was soon smitten with the Jewish state, and last November, she organized an Israel festival that drew 600 students. Her modus operandi, she says, is connecting her fellow students to Israeli culture.
“We made significant gains over the past year and it’s evident on campus,” she said. “I am not anticipating that the campus has changed sides, but at the same time I’m prepared to face any challenges that may arise on campus, in Tallahassee and in the world at large. I’m going to stand up and talk.”
Jamal Sowell, a black U.S. Marine and graduate student in higher education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, attended AIPAC’s mission to Israel with Wilkerson last year.
He said he is ready to counteract what he expects to be a number of anti-Israel and anti-war forums and protests.
“Pro-Israel activists have to step it up another notch,” he said. “You have groups such as Hezbollah that are out to wipe Israel off the map, and they are not going to stop until their agenda is pushed forth. That means that as Americans we cannot sit back and watch; we need to be proactive because what happens over there affects the whole Middle East and our country.”
Even students from traditionally Christian schools, where anti-Israel sentiment is comparatively low, are getting ready for a relatively busy season.
“We want to make sure people get the facts,” said Brian Colas, a senior at Virginia’s Liberty University who interned at AIPAC this summer. “We’re going to focus on the nature of Hezbollah to make sure no one is confused that they are a humanitarian organization that was attacked by Israel. If we bring this to the front, right away, I have no doubt that Liberty students will understand and know the nature of this conflict.”
Jewish students who have trained with non-Jewish activists at AIPAC events say they marvel at their level of commitment and enthusiasm.
Naomi Berlin, a sophomore at Tufts University in Boston who also interned at AIPAC this summer, said the efforts of her non-Jewish counterparts affirm that what she is doing is right.
“With Jewish students it’s something inherent, instilled in us from the beginning,” she said. “But for most of them, it’s something they’ve realized on their own. That’s why the level of commitment is so impressive.”