Hillel Activists Gear Up for Israel Debate This Fall

Ezra Billinkoff has an easy way about him, with his cropped red hair, funky glasses, wide grin and a T-shirt that boasts, “Everyone loves a Jewish Quaker.” But the 21-year-old president of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life at the University of Pennsylvania becomes serious when asked about his impending return to campus.

“We have a huge challenge,” Billinkoff told JTA at Hillel’s Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly, a five-day retreat for activists that ended Sunday at Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia.

Billinkoff is speaking about the heated and conflicted emotions some Jewish students have regarding Israel’s war this summer with Hezbollah. Like the four children in the Passover story, students returning to campus will bring a range of perspectives, Billinkoff said — including that of the proverbial child who doesn’t even know how to ask the relevant questions.

Billinkoff said he will work on campus to create “a forum for people to be able to express whatever they want.”

As Jewish activists return to college, they anticipate widespread debate over this summer’s monthlong war. But the debate also is taking place within Jewish groups, as the students determine the best course of action to support Israel.

Billinkoff urged one student activist to scale down plans for a pro-Israel event at Penn, arguing that a major, one-sided affair “could really alienate people, Jews included, who do not necessarily feel 100 percent Israel is right.”

American universities have seen vigorous debate over the years surrounding Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors. In 2000, the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada led to a swell of anti-Israel activism. In response, Jewish groups formed the Israel on Campus Coalition, which today comprises some 30 organizations with a campus presence, to coordinate Israel advocacy.

In recent years Jewish groups could claim they had “taken back the campus”: Petitions on several campuses to divest from Israel were trumped by counterpetitions, and Jewish groups had trained armies of pro-Israel student activists.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee even has begun training non-Jewish pro-Israel activists at historically black colleges and Christian universities.

Meanwhile, Israel gained sympathy with its unilateral withdrawal in 2005 from Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Now, a fresh group of students means re-educating the campus. This time around, the war has changed — and so have some of the activists’ tactics.

“We have been overly focused on proving that Israel is correct legally and logically, and we have not spent enough time” on the “moral and emotional aspects of the images people are seeing,” said Wayne Firestone, Hillel’s president-elect. “I think we’ve failed to make the case that Israel is a moral place.”

The use by anti-Israel activists of the “David-Goliath image takes the morality out of the issue,” Firestone said. Through that lens, even Israel’s vulnerability in the conflict is read as the “bully got what’s coming to them.”

However, Israel supporters can influence opinion by humanizing the conflict and appealing to emotions — circulating, for example, a cartoon that depicts an Israeli soldier shielding a baby carriage, opposite a Hezbollah fighter who is using a baby carriage as his own shield.

Anti-Israel activists are expected to argue that “Israel is occupying Lebanon just like it occupied Gaza,” Firestone said. But the conflict with Hezbollah provides pro-Israel activists with a clear enemy.

“We may have the best opportunity to show Hezbollah as thugs, to show Iran as a global threat because these guys are unabashed about who they are,” he said. “They can’t put a shiny veneer on this.”

The Israel on Campus Coalition has provided students with a 130-page resource guide offering programming ideas from member organizations, which run the political gamut.

The coalition also has various national programs in the works, including a national petition supporting Israel and a briefing for the coalition by senior White House staff.

But it’s up to each student to determine his or her own response.

For some of Hillel’s Grinspoon interns — students who serve as paid pro-Israel programmers — the best approach is a nuanced one.

“You also have to look at Israel’s faults,” said Talia Komorov, 21, an Israeli who is a senior at Florida Atlantic University. “When you advocate, you don’t want to seem like an extremist.”

But advocating for Israel doesn’t necessarily appeal to all Jewish students, even activists on a Hillel retreat.

“I try not to expose myself around it too much just because it’s not good, it’s not happy news,” says Jeff Diamon, 19, a University of Maryland sophomore.

“If I think about it, it’s not going to make a difference,” he said. “It’s not going to stop the war.”

His friend Josh Greenfeld, also a 19-year-old Maryland sophomore, disagrees.

Since “national and international affairs dictate what is acceptable,” he said, “you have to advocate for your country.”

Both Greenfeld and Diamon are Hillel “campus entrepreneurs,” working to create Jewish outlets for students uninvolved with Hillel.

The Israeli students at the retreat had plenty of criticism for the war — but unlike the Americans, whose discomfort centered on Lebanese casualties, the Israelis blasted military and political officials who delayed the ground invasion and left soldiers short of supplies.

Perhaps most of all, they were dismayed that Israel had entered a war they didn’t feel could be won.

In Israel, there’s a popular joke to that effect, said Idan Binyamin, 21, a political science student at Hebrew University.

“At the war’s start, the battle cry was: ‘Let Israel win!’ Then, a tie would have been enough,” he said. “And now? ‘What’s important is not whether Israel won or lost, but that it played the game.’ “

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