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Israel Advocates Hope Winter Trips Will Inspire Campus Activism in Spring

January 14, 2004
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After 12 days of advocacy training in the Jewish state, Jonathan Goldberg is returning to the University of Michigan with concrete plans for promoting Israel’s cause on campus.

“The trick is to translate” passion for Israel “into something that somebody else would care about,” says Goldberg, a sophomore who went to Israel for an advocacy workshop run by Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It’s about “making the people who don’t really know much about Israel love Israel,” he said.

With the spring semester coming, students like Goldberg are smitten with a new strategy for Israel advocacy on campus: love.

Thousands of Jewish students went to Israel over winter break on their own or in formal trips organized by groups like the Jewish Agency for Israel and birthright israel.

Hillel, the central Jewish campus group, unveiled a campaign called “Love is Real,” launched by sexpert Ruth Westheimer, to inspire passion — or love — for Israel.

“When you love something, you can disagree with aspects of the policy, but at the end of the day it’s still something you very much support,” said Daniel Frankenstein, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Israel programs aim to imbue students with the knowledge and emotion only first-hand experience in Israel can provide, organizers said. The goal is for students to return to campus with personal stories and new energy to help them promote Israel effectively and get others involved in the cause.

Activists say the stakes are big. College campuses represent the next generation of American opinion makers, and showing them Israel’s side is essential for the security of the U.S.-Israel bond.

After the beginning of the intifada in September 2000 led to an outbreak of anti-Israel activism at campuses across the United States, Jewish groups have worked to craft increasingly sophisticated advocacy training for students.

Three years in, the activists behind the advocacy programs are confident the message is getting out.

Ritzy pro-Israel programs groom campus activists into savvy leaders, and sometimes even professional lobbyists. AIPAC, for example, offered full-time jobs to three of the students who attended the group’s winter trip. AIPAC calls its campus strategy “retail engagement” — dispatching pro-Israel messages on a peer-to-peer basis.

Many of the students who participate in the training programs say they feel proud about being in a positive pro- Israel movement. They say they leave the programs with an articulate message and a bevy of ideas to fuel Zionist identity, from classes on krav maga — a type of self-defense taught in the Israeli military — to forging ties with other campus groups.

The anti-Israel activists turn off students with their hostile attitude, some of the advocates for Israel believe.

“We’re really making it clear to people that the pro-Israel movement is one that encompasses many different beliefs,” said Frankenstein. It is “very attractive to people.”

If tension resurfaces at Berkeley — a hotbed of anti-Israel activism during the intifada — pro-Israel activists say they’re prepared.

Activists say they expect anti-Israel attacks this year to target Israel’s talk of unilateral separation and the West Bank security barrier.

But not all Jewish college students have morphed into Middle East policy wonks. Many remain confused or intimidated when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reaches campus.

“I definitely have had moments where I was very, very fearful,” said Wayne Klitofsky, a sophomore at the University of California at San Diego.

An Alpha Epsilon Pi activist who attended his fraternity’s Israel advocacy training last fall, Klitofsky says he gets “death stares from members of the other side all the time.”

Last year, he brokered an agreement among activists against offensive antics, after pro-Palestinian students staged a scene of mock Israeli soldiers shooting pregnant women. This fall, however, the pro-Palestinian students backed out of the agreement, Klitofsky said, so he expects an “incredibly intense” semester.

At Georgetown University, the chilly relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students resemble “a cold war on campus,” said Deidre Moskowitz, president of the Jewish Student Association.

The debate on Israel does not stop at the classroom door.

Moskowitz, who is minoring in justice and peace studies, said she often hears students and professors calling the U.S.-Israel relationship “the catalyst for the war in Iraq.” Her contemporaries often call Israeli soldiers the “real terrorists,” she said.

Fighting back in class isn’t easy, Moskowitz said.

“Obviously, I’m not a tenured professor. I don’t have the same clout as someone spouting off their beliefs,” she said.

Even when hostilities aren’t a challenge, engaging apathetic students is.

The Middle East is “really off everyone’s radar down here,” said Greg Swartzberg, coordinator of a pro-Israel group at the University of Georgia.

At the University of Pennsylvania, pro-Israel activists say they can’t take it for granted that the issue won’t become heated on campus.

“When you look at the media and you watch TV and CNN, the image that one can have of the situation is one that doesn’t lend itself to support for Israel,” said Gabrielle Mashbaum, a student leader for the Jewish National Fund’s Caravan for Democracy, which sends speakers to campuses to promote Israel’s democratic values.

“When people don’t have that background or education in the history, then there’s a risk of sort of losing them,” Mashbaum said.

That’s why activist groups are turning to one-on-one advocacy.

“What keeps me up at night is that we’ve only scratched the surface,” said Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s leadership development director.

“We’ve got the right prescription,” he said, pointing out that pro-Israel groups constantly are launching new programs that interest students. But he’s worried that only a quarter of the country’s 2,400 major colleges have a pro-Israel presence, and many students have grown tired of the ongoing conflict.

The answer, Kessler and others say, is personal engagement.

AIPAC teaches students to engage others through pro-Israel voter registration. In addition to conducting regional campaign training institutes, AIPAC urges students to get involved with political campaigns and organize student delegations to lobby congressmen in their districts and in Washington.

Hillel has adopted the same tack. The group is asking its nearly 3,000 students returning from winter trips to Israel to give their peers “Love is Real” buttons.

“We will be encouraging and helping facilitate tens of thousands of discussions on campuses,” said Wayne Firestone, director of Hillel’s Center for Israel Affairs. “They are personal accounts that are meant to generate real discussions and real sharing of their experience and their stories while they were in Israel.”

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