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Jewish Campus Groups Gear Up for Major Israel Advocacy Push

August 21, 2006
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Jewish organizations that work on American college campuses are preparing student leaders for what they expect will be a barrage of anti-Israel sentiment this fall. “It’s going to be very challenging, not like the past four years,” says Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director at American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby in the United States.

He notes that “Israel has been very strong on campus since 2002,” after almost two years of anti-Israel animosity following the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

The Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella body of more than 30 Jewish student groups, has produced a 120-page binder of educational and advocacy initiatives that members are distributing to their campus representatives.

The coalition is planning a Sept. 5 summit in Washington, and has earmarked $300,000 in direct grants for students planning rallies and other pro-Israel events “to start the fall with a bang,” said David Harris, the coalition’s executive director.

Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, “completely changed” the program for its Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly scheduled for the end of August, says the group’s international director, Wayne Firestone.

“When we watch bombs falling on Haifa and soldiers held in captivity by Hamas and Hezbollah, as Jews we can’t just line up for bagels,” he said.

AIPAC brought more than 350 pro-Israel student activists to Washington in late July for four days of advocacy training at the Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar. The agenda was retooled at the last minute to focus on Israel’s right to defend itself, and the students were urged to meet with their congressional representatives, pass pro-Israel resolutions in their student governments, circulate petitions and write Op-Ed pieces.

Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the various Jewish religious streams, are preparing their campus representatives in similar fashion.

In a way, some of these leaders point out, Israel’s war against Hezbollah will be easier for students to rally around than more complex issues such as last year’s Gaza withdrawal or the West Bank security barrier.

“There is a face to this enemy, and it’s an ugly face,” Firestone said.

But rather than engaging in “scare tactics,” Firestone said, “it’s better to say, ‘It’s unacceptable for heads of state or any political actor to do these things to anyone.’ I think mainstream opinion on campus will get that.”

Jewish student leaders will face varied and nuanced attitudes on campus.

“We have to serve students coming back all gung-ho from conferences like this, to students coming back from peace rallies,” Firestone noted. “All these viewpoints are legitimate, and we can’t alienate any of them.”

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