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European Jewish Students Map out Pro-israel Strategies

March 5, 2002
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Jewish students from across Europe gathered here this week to brainstorm on how to support Israel and counter anti-Israel propaganda.

During the four-day congress, German students pledged to establish pro-Israel activist groups across the country. The students said they hope their idea would catch on with Jewish students across Europe.

These supporters of Israel have a difficult road ahead, as was made clear at the Hasbarah Congress, which was attended by some 160 students from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium. “Hasbarah” is a Hebrew word with several meanings, including “public relations,” “information” and “propaganda.”

Their skills were tested during the conference when news broke Saturday night of a deadly terror attack in Jerusalem that killed 10 people.

After a brainstorming session, about 50 students decided to demonstrate the following morning outside a Frankfurt church.

Organized by the Federation of Jewish Students in Germany and the Frankfurt-based Jewish Youth and Student Union of Hessen, the congress was meant to galvanize Jewish student activism for Israel at a time when popular support for the Jewish state in Germany appears to be at an all-time low.

The goal of the conference was to help students respond to anti-Israel comments that have become prevalent since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000. These include comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa; misinformation about Zionism and the history of the Jewish state; and conspiracy theories with age-old roots.

“We want to help shape public opinion in Germany and also help influence the image that Jews have of themselves here,” said Awi Blumenfeld, a leader of the student federation’s alumni who is now an assistant professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Blumenfeld, 35, helped coordinate the congress together with current federation President Victoria Dolburd, 21, and with Lorin Nezer, 26, board member of the Hessen student group.

Topics of discussion included the history of Zionism and the Jewish state; the relationship between Judaism and Islam; media coverage of the Middle East; Israeli Arabs and Jewish settlers; the intifada; and how to respond to Palestinian propaganda.

Guest speakers included Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein; Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress; and historian Michael Wolffsohn of the University of Munich.

The event was co-sponsored by the Central Council, the WJC, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, and the German Ministry for Family, Youth, Seniors and Women.

Participants spoke about the questions and challenges they face from peers and professors — comments that reflect ignorance, hostility and sometimes outright hate.

“It was after Sept. 11, and we were sitting at our regular lunch table, when a professor said that it was the Mossad who carried out the attacks, and world Jewry had organized it,” said Nina Belovska, a 27-year-old student of molecular biology in Heidelberg, Germany. “He said it had to be true, because only world Jewry had something to gain by this act.

“I tried to be as unemotional as possible, and to explain the facts, to explain the absurdity of this idea,” Belovska said. “But at the point where he referred to ‘world Jewry,’ this was unbelievable. One can’t argue any more. I was alone.”

“It is really frustrating when you go to the university and you see posters, ‘Palestine Under Attack,’ or ‘Israel Is an Apartheid State,’ ” said Marta Macznik, who comes from Portugal and is pursuing a master’s degree in international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

“We need to give tools to students — historical background, hasbara skills.”

Macznik was part of a delegation from the European Union of Jewish Students that attended a U.N. conference on racism held last year in Durban, South Africa — an event that turned stridently anti-Israel thanks to Muslim activists.

She said the members of her delegation were shocked at the degree to which they were shunned by other youth delegations.

When the Jewish group asked some gypsy students to sign a statement that the persecution of Jews, gypsies and others during the Holocaust must be taught in schools, at first they agreed, Macznik told JTA — but then they withdrew.

According to Joav Ben-Shmuel, a history student at the University of Zurich who also was in Durban, the gypsy students said it would ruin their image at the conference if they associated with a Jewish group.

“For the first time, I realized how easy it was to misuse the Mideast conflict,” Macznik said. “One of the reasons why the students organized the Hasbara Congress was as a follow-up to Durban, so students know how to respond.”

That ability was tested Saturday evening, when news broke of a deadly terror attack in Jerusalem that killed 10 people.

Most of the students had just dressed up for the Frankfurt Purim ball, a social highlight of the congress.

Instead of heading directly for the party, many students first gathered for a brainstorming session.

Should they demonstrate? And if so, should they do it at churches, or in front of the local Palestinian Authority headquarters? Should the message be one of solidarity with the victims or anger at the sponsors of terror — or both?

In the end, the students brought a petition to the Purim ball. Volunteers gathered signatures from the partygoers, who expressed their sympathy and mourning amid the holiday celebration.

The next morning, some 50 students temporarily left the final meetings of the congress to demonstrate outside Frankfurt’s Dome Church.

During the demonstration, some 50 Jewish students reminded the churchgoers that, the night before, Jews in Israel were murdered after emerging from their own Sabbath service. They asked for solidarity with Israel and expressed their hopes for a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.

“Maybe we really did it for ourselves, to heal our wounds,” explained Dolburd, the student federation president, who said there was no media presence at the demonstration. “Almost all of us have family or friends — and our hearts — in Israel.”

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