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Op-Ed: Israel advocacy is needed on non-Hillel campuses

CHICAGO (JTA) — The support of the world’s only superpower for the world’s only Jewish state is a priceless asset for Israel. Sustaining that support, especially among the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t Jewish, is a sacred trust for American Jews.

Despite our massive Israel advocacy efforts in the realm of media, politics and intergroup relations, the Jewish community is leaving a massive stone unturned: campuses without a Hillel.

Mostly through Hillel and Birthright Israel, our community is investing some $200 million annually in our prized Jewish college-age cohort. That’s necessary and important, but insufficient. Put simply, our Israel advocacy work is ignoring the majority of colleges where most of our nation’s leaders are being educated.

Hillel foundations operate at about 150 of America’s thousands of colleges and universities, serving 300,000 Jewish students among the 16 million on U.S. campuses. To be sure, Jewish groups respond wherever a campus crisis occurs, whether or not Hillel is present. And AIPAC is doing important work at such non-Hillel venues as Evangelical and historically African-American colleges. Yet the national repertoire of Israel advocacy resources simply fails to engage non-Hillel campuses.

What happens in that void? Is there no Israel education, or is it happening in problematic ways?

The truth is, we don’t know. While ignorance can be bliss, it also is dangerous, especially on campuses.

An example illuminates the risk of continuing to ignore non-Hillel campuses. Congressional support has been the bedrock of U.S.-Israel relations during both Democratic and Republican presidencies. Yet neither the current (Pelosi) or previous (Hastert) speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, nor the current Senate majority (Reid) or minority leader (McConnell), attended a college with a Hillel foundation presence. (Thankfully these four congressional leaders have in fact worked to strengthen U.S. support for Israel.)

Moving forward, we must not leave our Israel advocacy efforts to chance until someone announces their political candidacy, delivers their first church sermon or writes their first editorial. Israel’s opponents aren’t so passive. Rebuffed in their initial Israel divestment campaigns at Hillel-affiliated campuses, they are increasingly pushing forward on non-Hillel campuses.

Israel’s supporters and detractors both recognize that college life is pivotal to molding public opinion, a time and a place where lifelong personal relationships and political orientations are formed. Yet our community, to its own and Israel’s peril, continues ignoring non-Hillel campuses.

Recognizing this advocacy hole, two leading Chicago-area foundations are partnering with the Chicago federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council to reach thousands of students on some of the 85 percent of Illinois campuses without a Hillel. The groundbreaking initiative to engage tomorrow’s political, civic, business, media and religious leaders, called "Reach Across Illinois Campuses," or RAIC, was launched earlier this year. 

Building upon a seven-year, $3 million JCRC Israel advocacy project on 19 Hillel campuses throughout Illinois — in turn building upon an annual $1.5 million federation investment in those Hillels — RAIC hired a program director with significant campus experience engaging non-Jewish students, professors and administrators. After researching Illinois’ 100 non-Hillel campuses — examining variables such as student and professor demographics, anti- and pro-Israel activities, and academic offerings — seven schools were selected to be in RAIC’s inaugural "class."

The initiative already is paying dividends at places such as Aurora and North Park universities and Elmhurst and Wheaton colleges — schools that are not household names in the Jewish community. That’s precisely the point.

RAIC will deepen its relationships with the original seven campuses while adding new schools each year. While some quantitative goals are an integral part of the program, the guiding principles are quality, depth and duration of impact.

Sample activities have included bringing students to Washington for meetings with Israeli diplomats and Illinois senators and congressmen, bringing Israeli journalists into classrooms and facilitating the emergence of a pro-Israel student group.

In addition to professors and administrators, the program director cultivates relationships with ROTC officers and campus ministers, student government, campus newspapers, and fraternities and sororities. On Sept. 10, the Illinois delegation to the national fly-in day to Washington to lobby against a nuclear Iran will include non-Jewish students from these non-Hillel campuses. Then, in August 2010, thanks to a matching grant from the Jewish Funders Network, RAIC will bring professors from these non-Hillel campuses on an educational seminar in Israel.

The success of this Illinois project can serve as a model in other communities. An outside evaluation mechanism is strengthening our own efforts and also can help others launch similar advocacy endeavors.

As we anticipate the start of another academic year, we are overwhelmed by the challenges we are uncovering beneath this huge non-Hillel "rock." At the same time, we are inspired (energized?) by the Israel advocacy opportunities present at thousands of "unreached" campuses and among millions of college students.

For Israel’s sake, this effort is no academic matter.

(Jay Tcath is senior vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.)

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