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In the Jewish-muslim Campus Battle, Education is the Thing, Activists Say

April 10, 2002
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Shira Landau wants her fellow Jews at the University of California at San Diego to be proactive about their pro-Israel message.

Easier said than done.

Jewish activists at the California school — and on college campuses across the country — are struggling with ways to get out their message as they encounter increased efforts by Arab student groups.

Like many Jewish student leaders, Landau is working to organize speakers forums, hold workshops and educate people about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

She does not want to simply counter the other side’s message.

“If it’s always reactive, it’s not very empowering,” she said. “It’s tiring.”

Before Sept. 11, Arab student groups had planned a campaign to call for universities to divest from Israel, similar to a students campaign waged against South Africa in the 1980s.

The groups toned down their actions after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, in part out of fear that their message would not find much sympathy as anti-Islamic sentiment spread across the United States.

But several months later, the divestment campaign is again picking up steam. And a pro-Palestinian “Day of Rage” was marked Tuesday on some college campuses to commemorate the “massacre” of Palestinians in Deir Yassin during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

It’s unclear how pervasive the new push is, as several Hillel directors said their campuses have been relatively quiet. But as the violence in the Middle East intensifies, the campaigns might become more active.

There continue to be hot spots such as the University of California at Berkeley, where the Hillel was recently vandalized and Jewish students say they feel under attack, and the University of Michigan, where there are large numbers of both Arab and Jewish students.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Hamagshimim, the American Israel Political Affairs Committee and other organizations have been working on campuses to get students to understand the political situation in Israel.

“The sky’s not caving in,” said Michael Jankelowitz, Hillel’s director of Campus Israel Affairs, a new project with the Jewish Agency. “Jewish students are proud.”

Hillel is coordinating a nationwide Day of Solidarity with Israel on April 17, Israel’s Independence Day, when students will affirm Israel’s “right to exist within secure boundaries.”

The focus on campuses continues to be on education about the issue, but Jewish students shouldn’t be bullied and there are issues where they can go on the offensive as well, Jankelowitz said.

Jewish students are conflicted and they have to explain and understand the history of the conflict themselves first, according to Michael Brooks, the executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel.

What’s especially difficult for Jewish students is the formation of a clear and focused message.

There is definitely a pro-Israel sentiment, but the spectrum of different positions makes it “really hard” to draft a cohesive message, said Liz Rutzick, a University of Pennsylvania senior and Israel chair of Penn Hillel.

But senior Eric Bukstein, chairman of the governing board of Michigan’s Hillel, says that may be both a weakness and a strength.

Different pro-Israel opinions don’t preclude a unified message — in fact, different opinions mean people are informed, Bukstein said.

The need to appeal to a diverse audience is reflected in the working theme of Wednesday’s planned rally at Michigan — “Wherever I stand, I stand with Israel.”

Arab students, meanwhile, are defining Israel as an apartheid state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a human rights issue, said Jeffrey Ross, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of campus/higher education affairs.

They are setting a tone on campuses that Israel is the aggressor, and activism is not only pervasive but reaching a crescendo, Ross warned, though it has not reached critical mass yet.

At times, anti-Israel propaganda blends into an anti-Semitic message as well.

At San Francisco State, a poster being displayed on campus accuses Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of slaughtering Palestinian children according to Jewish rites.

Despite the anti-Semitism, Reed Albergotti, a senior at San Diego State University, believes it’s important to maintain a dialogue with Arab student groups and is co-sponsoring an event about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with a Muslim student group.

“A Jewish event doesn’t change the sentiment on campus,” said Albergotti, who founded a pro-Israel group on campus.

Hillel directors and Jewish students say rallies and counter rallies should not be the focus of pro-Israel student activism. They say educating students is of paramount importance.

“Education is most helpful so you can get more dialogue instead of emotional bloodletting and finger pointing,” said Rabbi Andrew Bachman, director of the Bronfman Center at New York University’s Hillel.

Many Muslim students are first- or second-generation immigrants to America and have familial ties and a good grasp of the situation, whereas Jewish students might not have that emotional connection or be as knowledgeable.

But Jewish students are becoming better prepared — and more willing to defend Israel, said Simon Amiel, executive director of George Washington University’s Hillel.

“We’re seeing Jewish students come out of the woodwork because they’re being asked to defend Israel,” he said. “Students make their own choice but they need to make an educated choice.”

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