Bryan Hair says he traveled thousands of miles from the Christian college he attends in Tennessee to learn “the true meaning of the word courage.” Hair had his epiphany atop a hill in an Israeli army base, peering at a Hezbollah tower less than a mile away in Lebanon.
“People live in fear there of a 9/11 every single day,” said Hair, who leads a pro-Israel advocacy group at Carson Newman College.
The American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, hosted 43 students from 40 different colleges on a first-time tour of Israel last month.
The students — from Ivy League schools, state universities, major Christian and historically black campuses — visited Christian and Jewish holy sites, army bases and tourist destinations.
The 10-day trip, the first of its kind underwritten by AIPAC, also involved meetings with policy makers, ambassadors, journalists and other opinion leaders. Other U.S. Jewish groups have sponsored tours for non-Jewish students in the past.
AIPAC says the mission is part of the pro-Israel lobby’s recent efforts to reach beyond the Jewish community to American communities not traditionally known for pro-Israel activism.
The students, all non-Jewish student leaders known for their pro-Israel sympathies, said they returned more passionate than ever before about advocating for the Jewish state.
“All these years I’ve been advocating for Israel and speaking about the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Jamal Sowell, former student-body president at the University of Florida and now a graduate student in higher education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “But now that I had the chance to see first-hand what I’ve been advocating for, it takes my passion to a whole other level.”
That was the reaction AIPAC officials were hoping to hear.
“These students are America’s future leaders, and these missions give them the tools they need to become more effective advocates for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC board member Barry Silverman said. Most of the students previously had attended AIPAC student policy conferences in Washington.
Sowell, an African American, says he has been working hard to expand pro-Israel outreach to different cultures, a goal he shares with AIPAC.
“It steps up advocacy to a whole other level,” he said.
The case for Israel needs to be made by people of various cultures “because what happens in Israel is going to come back to affect all of us here in America,” he said. “I’ve tried to stress it’s not a Jewish issue — it’s a human issue.”
Many participants say they intend to pursue careers in policymaking. Brian Colas, a junior at Liberty University, a small Christian school in Virginia, is considering joining the State Department after graduation.
“Going on the trip gave me a better ability to articulate to others why it is in America’s best interests to have a strong relationship with Israel,” said Colas, the president of Liberty’s Stand with Israel club.
“Having an ally we can work with in the Middle East is the best way to achieve our long-term goals in the region of stopping terrorism, establishing democracy and getting rid of tyranny,” he said.
Colas cited a poll he read indicating that Palestinians would model their ideal government on Israel’s.
Other participants said they better understand Israel’s security situation after visiting an army base along the border with Lebanon.
Seeing first-hand how small Israel is, and how close it is to its enemies, conveys the sense of urgency, said Grant Woodard, a senior at Grinnell College in Iowa and the national president of College Democrats in America.
“It makes you understand why it is so necessary to take security measures such as building the fence,” he said.
Woodard was joined on the trip by a number of National College Democrat board members. He said trips like this ensure that the next generation of Democrats “will continue to care and be informed about Israel.”
Woodard joined Paul Gourley, a graduate of the University of South Dakota and current chairman of the College Republican National Committee, as honorary chairs of the AIPAC mission.
The two issued a joint resolution urging the United States and its allies not to deal with Hamas, the terrorist group that won a landslide election in legislative elections last month, unless it disarms, renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. The resolution also endorsed legislation that would tighten sanctions on Iran until it complies with nuclear inspectors.
“Israel is a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East,” said Gourley, who was joined by several of his Republican board members.
Some of the more religious Christians on the trip said they always had been interested in Israel because of the Bible and the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
“My love for Israel is genuine,” said Hair, a Baptist. “Following the political situation the last few years and going to Israel have added a different viewpoint on why I love it, without forsaking my old opinions.”
Hair expressed regret that many in the world consider Israel overly dependent on the United States.
“The world must see that Israel can stand on its own,” said Hair, describing is a strong, vibrant, and self-sustaining democracy.
On two occasions in Israel, the non-Jewish students joined with 84 Jewish students who were on a separate AIPAC-sponsored mission. They met with Richard Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Israel; Avi Granot. President Moshe Katsav’s top adviser; and attended a roundtable discussion with Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, Joel Greenberg of The Chicago Tribune and former CNN Middle East Correspondent Jerrold Kessel.
Jewish students on the separate AIPAC student tour were heartened to join non-Jewish students on some events, said University of California-Berkley junior Marissa Matthew, who attended AIPAC’s Jewish trip.
“It makes you that much more excited to support Israel when you see that you’re not alone in the fight,” she said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.