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Students Hope Israel Summit Will Spur Advocacy on Campus

January 5, 2004
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To readers of newspapers worldwide, Israel’s West Bank security barrier can seem imposing, inhuman and provocative.

Seen from a nearby overlook that shows how closely Israeli and Palestinian areas are interlaced, however, the fence may appear more comprehensible — and that view may help visiting Diaspora students make the case for Israel more persuasively upon their return home.

Organizers of last week’s Global Jewish Student Leadership Summit said that exploring the complexities of Israel in person and on the ground is the most effective way to reach students — especially as Israeli-Palestinian fighting enters its fourth year and Israel remains unpopular on many college campuses.

“This gives them the ability to go back to their campuses and start every sentence with ‘I just came back from Israel,’ ” said Alon Friedman, the New York-based representative of Hamagshimim, the student chapter of Hadassah. “It gives them much more credibility.”

The 1,000 students on the trip will be able to bring to campus a personal narrative that helps them explain the conflict to others, said the organizers, who included the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Union of Jewish Students and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Among the 300 Hillel students at the summit were some 80 U.S. student leaders on a special advocacy training mission.

Most mornings on their 12-day trip, they rose at dawn to read Israeli newspapers and hone their media-analysis skills.

The students traveled the length of the country meeting both Israelis and Palestinians and were coached on dealing with media. Video cameras were set up to record them as they practiced interviewing and public-speaking skills.

Mock panel discussions were held and students took turns playing interviewer and interviewee, and even practiced speaking to hostile crowds.

At the final morning of the student summit, wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts with their university logos, students clapped, cheered and took notes as attorney Alan Dershowitz took to the stage.

“I want you to change the world. I want you to be my co-counsel for Israel,” said Dershowitz, who recently published an advocacy guide, The Case for Israel. “I’ve never had a client more innocent or unjustly accused than Israel.”

Dershowitz reminded students that they had the freedom to defend or criticize the country, just as Israelis do, but urged them to stand up for Israel. He spoke of the trepidation among Jewish faculty and students to speak out in support of Israel and urged summit participants to lead by example.

“It’s an uphill fight,” he told the crowd. “Go to it and rock the world.”

Students said the experience would help them be more effective advocates at home.

“We are not trying to be reactionary, we are trying to get information about the problems,” said Dalit Ballen, 21, who is studying for a joint degree at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Ballen, who was one of the students on the Israel advocacy mission, said taking on Israel advocacy feels like “an overwhelming feeling of responsibility” — especially since no peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians looms on the horizon.

Being in Israel, Ballen said, gives the students information for intelligent arguments in the often heated discussions at Columbia — especially with faculty members, many of whom have been especially outspoken against Israel.

Ballen’s friend Baylene Wacks, also 21 and from South Florida, said coming to Israel will boost her advocacy efforts at George Washington University — where she said student apathy, not anti-Israel sentiment, is the major problem.

“Now we can say, ‘Yes, I spoke to Knesset members and here is what is going on.” I learned about the moral code used by the” Israeli army, Wacks said. “It gives us a better foundation, hearing people within Israel.”

The summit emphasized positive associations with Israel.

Blue and white T-shirts emblazoned with, “I Love Israel. I Want Peace” on the front and “I am a Zionist” on the back were sold. Students are planning to sell the shirts at their home campuses.

“We are trying to reclaim Zionism” to show that it’s not “a fanatical nationalistic movement,” Friedman said.

Pins were passed out with the logo “Love Is Real,” a campaign launched by Hillel and chaired by famed sex therapist Ruth Westheimer.

The plan is for students to use the pins as a conversation starter about Israel. Students have been encouraged to select at least one person on campus to give the pin to and share a “love story” from the trip to Israel.

Each participant also sent a postcard with the logo to a friend back home who has never been to Israel. In an attempt to give a human face to the Jewish state, students are expected to select a vignette from the trip — praying at the Western Wall, say, or developing a taste for olives — and share it with friends and peers, said Wayne Firestone, director of Hillel’s Center for Israel Affairs.

“We have to win over the hearts of young people by dealing with their emotional attachment to this place,” he said. “We want to make sure they don’t lose the fire” upon returning home.

Avraham Infeld, Hillel’s interim president, was a driving force behind the campaign.

“Students in general listen much more to their peers,” Infeld said. If the summiteers share their stories, “it will have an amazing effect.”

In addition, being in Israel is the ultimate motivator for students to stay active for Israel, he said.

“It gives them motivation not to wait for Arab propaganda to react,” Infeld said, “but to be proactive and share their stories.”

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