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Student Activists Learn Advocacy in Hillel Push to Be More Proactive

May 29, 2002
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Kfir Mordechay, a wiry San Francisco State sophomore with a sliver of a goatee on his chin, appears unruffled when discussing why anti-Israel bias has erupted on his campus.

“I think being pro-Palestinian is a leftist viewpoint. It’s almost automatic at our school,” he said, bouncing a blue handball on the hot Jerusalem pavement. “But the last month of demonstrations didn’t help their cause.”

At San Francisco State, a pro-Israel rally earlier this month turned rough as pro-Palestinian protestors hurled anti-Semitic epithets and threatened Jewish students, who needed police protection.

“There’s a strong anti-war movement on campus,” explained Nathaniel Tishman, a junior at San Francisco State. “And anti-war rallying leads to pro-Palestinian rallying.”

In response to rising anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents this spring on universities across the United States, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sponsored an advocacy training mission in Israel.

Mordechay and Tishman were among more than 350 Jewish student leaders at the five-day mission, which included meetings with political figures and briefings from academics, journalists and military personnel.

The mission is just one aspect of Hillel’s more proactive role in advocating for Israel on campus.

As part of the “Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel” campaign, Hillel organized 65 buses to bring students to Washington for the Israel solidarity rally in April, placed ads in campus newspapers and put together resource kits for campuses marked by anti-Israel activity.

The kits include a banner, 1,000 stickers, 400 key chains, Israeli and American flags, books and fact sheets.

The organization’s new model also includes cooperative efforts and information sharing with other pro-Israel organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America’s campus group and Hadassah’s Hamagshimim.

“If we can be more proactive, we can accomplish a lot more,” said Dikla Tuchman, an activist at San Francisco State.

At the end of the mission in Israel, 80 students will remain for two more weeks to participate in an intensive media and advocacy training retreat at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

The students each paid $250 for the mission, $180 of which will come from their local Jewish federation’s Israel Emergency Campaign.

“I’m here to do more listening than talking,” Mordechay said. “I’m here to expose my mind.”

Not every campus has experienced such extreme anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism as has San Francisco State. Then again, some campuses were better prepared than others.

At the University of Michigan, Jewish students already had shifted last fall from a “reactive to a proactive model” after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said Eric Bukstein, 21, a Michigan senior.

During the fall semester, Jewish student activists at Michigan received weekly training in advocacy, learning how to take a big-picture look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We weren’t just handing out copies of ‘Myths and Facts,’ ” said Bukstein, referring to a pro-Israel paperback guide to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “We brought in a debate coach and a media consultant.”

Arab students at Michigan also were geared for action, sending out a strong, nuanced message that carefully avoided anti-Semitic references.

“The Palestinian voice at Michigan is incredibly bright,” Bukstein said. “If they write an editorial, we shoot one back. But we’re trying to stay away from counter-rallies.”

At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., a strong Jewish presence on campus and a supportive faculty staved off any serious anti-Israel incidents.

“We’ve been lucky,” said Mosheh Oinounou, a Hillel activist who also is managing editor of the G.W. Hatchet, the school’s biweekly paper. “We’ve been able to preempt with a strong presence on campus.”

At the beginning of the year, Jewish students at George Washington realized there was a wellspring of support for Israel on campus; the question was how to tap into it.

The school also has a large number of foreign Arab students, most of whom preferred to keep a low profile after Sept. 11. Much of the pro-Palestinian activity at George Washington thus fell to Arab Americans, who kept up a steady beat of rallies and editorials.

“I learned to separate my Israel leanings from my role at the newspaper,” said Oinounou. “I wanted to keep the coverage balanced, unlike many other college newspapers, which have an agenda.”

But it can be tough to stick to the facts when it appears that the other side is more interested in posturing.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, most of the Palestinian supporters seem to be political science students who embarked on an “angry P.R. campaign,” student Dan Rosenfeld reported.

“We don’t do mock suicide bombings to mimic their mock military incursions,” Rosenfeld said. “We organize rallies for peace to keep the dialogue going.”

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

The pro-Israel activists avoid such incendiary messages, hewing to a tacit understanding that pro-Israel doesn’t mean anti-Palestinian.

“In our rallies, you never hear anything about hating Palestinians,” Tishman said.

Students say the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic invective has provided one benefit: There seems to be a shift in public perceptions of the situation.

“I talk to people on campus, and they don’t like the pro-Palestinian movement,” Tuchman said. “We’re grateful they’re taking note.”

“Propaganda hurt the Palestinians in the long run,” Mordechay agreed.

What the pro-Palestinian student activists do seem to have is a strategic network that gets their message out quickly and efficiently to campuses across the country.

“They’re on each other’s listservs,” Tuchman said, referring to e-mail lists. “They’re so networked.”

In many ways, the goal of this week’s mission in Israel is to knit the community of Jewish activists more tightly together. The plan is to share, coordinate and unify the Jewish response to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic events on campus.

“We want to hear what’s happening on other campuses,” Tuchman said. “We’re all in the same situation.”

Hillel, they say, is teaching a more proactive model.

“They’re giving us the tools and resources to figure this out,” Bukstein said.

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