Student interns clash over Zionist programming


NEW YORK, Aug. 16 (JTA) — To Adina East, the escalating violence in Israel serves as “a red flag that now we have to start doing something” to show support for the Jewish state.

A junior at Queens College in New York, East was one of 67 college students who were part of the Hillels of New York/FEGS Collegiate Leadership Internship Program this summer.

The organized Jewish community makes no secret of its desire to get young Jews more involved in the community. Some examples are the Birthright Israel program, which offers free trips to young Jewish adults who have never visited Israel, and the a massive Israel solidarity rally planned for Sept. 23 in New York.

Another example is the CLIP program, a partnership between Hillel and FEGS, the largest social service agency in the New York area, which helps find and fund internships for students identified as potential Jewish leaders.

One of the program’s main emphases this summer was the violence that has wracked the Middle East since the Palestinian uprising began last September.

“One of the most challenging aspects of how CLIP approached Israel this summer is that the seminars pushed students to formulate opinions,” program director Wendy Miller Gamer said.

“If Israel in the past hadn’t been at the top of the list of things to figure out for young adults, this summer it had to be” said Miller Gamer, director of regional programs for the Hillels of New York.

CLIP forces the students to “be active and do something,” East said. “There’s a lack of general knowledge about Israel, not everyone is running out to get it and it’s not getting to them. There’s a whole passive attitude that CLIP is trying to fight.”

One of last year’s CLIP participants, Linda Lantos, went on to play a key role in combating what many saw as the anti-Israel rhetoric pervading the Binghamton University campus in New York after the “Al-Aksa Intifada” began.

During their six-week program this summer, most CLIP participants worked as interns at a variety of Jewish nonprofit organizations. However, they spent half a day each week in leadership and educational workshops dealing with everything from resume writing and career development to Jewish identity.

“The Jewish community is calling out to the younger generation more than ever to formulate an opinion” on issues, “and formulate one that supports Israel,” Miller Gamer said.

The call is not falling on deaf ears.

Almost immediately after her internship with the marketing division of the Anti-Defamation League began this summer, East contacted her campus Hillel about the need for programs to raise Israel awareness in the coming school year. Despite her lack of prior involvement with Hillel, East’s persistence won her a spot on the board for the school year.

Arie Lipnick, a student at State University of New York at Albany, says that in the wake of increased bloodshed in Israel, he has seen many of his peers “go from complete ambivalence to feeling such great passion” for Israel.

But CLIP also demands that the students’ passion be translated into action. Recognizing that “it’s ignorance that breeds the anti-Semitism” surfacing on campuses, Lipnick says the Jewish community at his university works vigorously to educate the student body.

Last year, for example, the Zionist organization at SUNY Albany brought speakers to campus from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Israeli Consulate in New York.

A junior at Cornell University, Lonnie Fox participated in the inaugural Birthright Israel trip in 1999. Before that, he said, his knowledge about Israel was very limited.

“I didn’t even know that I was missing out,” he said.

Fox, who interned this summer for MasterCard International, says he plans on being more involved in Jewish life on campus in the future.

“CLIP has definitely prepared me to be a Jewish leader on my campus, in the Jewish community and in the world at large,” he said.

Erica Ash also attributes her newborn interest in Israel to her Birthright trip last winter.

“Now I listen to the news very intently,” Ash said, adding that she’d been unsure about which news sources were reliable.

“Prior to CLIP, it was hard to know which sources to go to,” she said. The program provided each student with a resource packet with suggested contact people, organizations, Web sites and newspapers.

If the CLIP program is any indication, the Jewish community’s efforts are succeeding not only in finding future Jewish leaders but in raising the temperature of its young blood.

“The content of our programming was increasingly pushing us to equate our Judaism with a prioritization of Israel,” said Yael Gottlieb, a senior at New York University.

“I have a deep love and loyalty to the land that is literally my homeland,” said Gottlieb, who spent the first six years of her life in Israel. “But this love is separate from my feelings toward Judaism.”

Given what she called the decidedly “right-wing” speakers, Helaine Blumenthal of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania “often felt marginalized as a Jew who doesn’t support Israel.”

Blumenthal and Gottlieb have sympathy for the Palestinian cause, which makes them a minority in Jewish leadership programs, they say.

“A lot of Jews are blind to Jewish violations of Palestinian human rights,” Blumenthal said.

Gottlieb says her opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t necessarily contradict Zionism, “but Zionism scares me,” since she feels it prevents her peers from looking at issues objectively and thinking independently.

“I thought that my more holistic, heterogeneous outlook on the situation was more in the majority,” Gottlieb said. “I guess my liberal college upbringing had me fooled.”

Blumenthal told of the heated debates that took place during group seminars on Israel once everyone quit “tiptoeing around the subject.”

Gottlieb says that “the atmosphere by the end” of CLIP “was really tense.”

But most CLIP participants found the tension productive.

East, for example, spent her freshman year at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, but says it was only through her seminars and discussions at CLIP this summer that she discovered how large a role Israel plays in her Jewish identity.

“I had never connected myself as a Jew to my belief in the State of Israel,” she said.

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