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Students at Aipac Conference Get Energized for Campus Activism

April 24, 2002
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The scene was like a full-throttle rock concert, with students squeezed wall-to- wall, thumping, jumping and screaming in heady anticipation.

The rock idol was Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some 650 students rushed the corridors of the hotel at this week’s annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for the chance to greet Israel’s former prime minister.

Waving Israeli flags and singing a medley of Hebrew songs that morphed into punchy chants of “Bi-bi,” the mood was electric.

“I can’t hear you,” joked Netanyahu, who earlier told AIPAC’s sold-out conference that the hundreds of students here sounded more like thousands. “I hear you loud and clear,” he then said, rousing the crowd to an even prouder pitch.

Weathering a storm of anti-Israel rhetoric on campus that has surged during Israel’s latest military incursions, students gathered here for strategy and support.

In the face of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, these students remain strong, even defiant, in standing by Israel, pointing to panel discussions, demonstrations and workshops on activism and letter-writing that help them make Israel’s case.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis may in fact be building the most pro-Israel student generation ever, according to Michael Jankelowitz, director of Campus Israel Affairs, a program established at the start of the year for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Hillel and AIPAC have been deeply involved in helping students fight the battle on campus. With its partner agencies, Hillel is launching an ad campaign in campus newspapers, mobilizing students to buy and promote Israeli products — and raising money to buy an ambulance for Magen David Adom, the Israeli relief group.

AIPAC is tripling its student budget to add staff and resources to the effort.

Local federations, JCCs and Israeli consulates also are lending a hand, along with organizations like Hadassah’s Hamagshimim and, now, the Caravan for Democracy, a campus speakers program linking America and Israel.

But it isn’t easy, said students, who feel at a disadvantage against a unified Palestinian front that spreads propaganda rather than fact.

And it isn’t easy to unite Jewish students when their opinions range across the political spectrum and their confusion about the issue sometimes yields to apathy.

But the activists said they have an arsenal of skills, knowledge and determination to fight the good fight. At workshops over the course of the three-day AIPAC conference, they traded stories and ideas on how to succeed.

“The reality is that anti-Israel activity on college campuses may carry on for years, and outlast the current period of Middle East violence,” Julie Esther Bernstein said while accepting AIPAC’s award for the most outstanding student activist.

A senior at UCLA who will begin a doctoral program on Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University, Bernstein offered fellow students a host of combat tactics: acquire knowledge by reading a variety of papers, take advantage of school courses and internships, train in public speaking and lobbying, support a plurality of opinions, mentor new pro-Israel advocates and build coalitions with campus leaders.

Educating from the “bottom up,” she said, is the only way to find a “durable solution to the conflict.”

While campus anti-Israel activity increased after Israel launched Operation Protective Wall in late March, students agree that Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian areas won’t end the protests. The climate might even get worse, suggested Oren Kwiatek, a freshman at Ohio State University.

“It’s going to have zero effect,” predicted Randy Barnes, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee at the University of California at Berkeley, the scene of some of the worst anti-Israel activity of any campus.

It’s not “any particular policy of the Israeli government” that people are protesting. “It’s the existence of the Israeli government.”

Several anti-Semitic incidents have struck Berkeley over the course of the intifada, including the throwing of a cinder block through Hillel’s glass doors a few weeks ago and intimidation of Jewish students leaving Yom Kippur services.

But Barnes said Berkeley’s pro-Israel group, which sent an 18-student delegation to the conference, will continue “positive, pro-active programming,” including hosting speakers such as Jonathan Kessler, editor of Middle East Insight; throwing an Israel Independence Day party on campus; holding bonfire socials for group support; and manning their table with an Israeli flag for three hours each day.

Ultimately, he said, the efforts of the Arab students — who recently took over a school building for the second time in as many years — are counterproductive. While the pro-Israel students preach peace and coexistence, the anti- Israel groups spew anger and hate, he said.

Janelle Noble, a non-Jewish, pro-Israel activist at the University of San Francisco, agreed that the Palestinian activists’ anger prevents them from giving a coherent message.

Jewish groups should continue educational programming, Noble said. For her part, she’ll continue writing editorials to her college paper and citing the Congressional support she heard at the conference.

“Our focus should not be on giving history lessons,” said Noam Kutler, a sophomore at Rutgers University.

It would be nice to be able to “have debates with every single Palestinian supporter,” but that’s not the best use of resources, he said. Instead, he said, pro-Israel activists should stay on a single message, just as the Palestinians do.

But Shira Shudofsky, a Rutgers senior who plans to move to Israel next month, said the Palestinian approach might not work for Israel, since the Jewish state is held to a different standard.

If Israelis tried to make people feel bad for their plight, they probably would be told that it was their own fault, Shudofsky added.

Students said they drew strength from the numbers of like-minded activists and the discovery of new approaches to the struggle.

Noah Palmer-Licht, a sophomore at North Carolina State, said he had been struggling to gain pro-Israel ground on campus, but the conference had given him “a whole other world of support,” he said.

Palmer-Licht received suggestions on how to combat professors involved in anti-Israel activity and said he will implement his plan — asking religion and history professors to introduce class dialogue — when he returns to school.

Ben Einfeld, a senior at the University of Miami, said hearing pro-Israel messages from U.S. officials had empowered him, and he felt equipped to fight back against critics of Israel.

Mira Kogen, a sophomore at Columbia University and the Jewish

Theological Seminary, spoke for students at last week’s Israel solidarity rally in Washington. The pro-Israel movement on campus is stronger now than it had been in the last several months, she said.

The network of students at the AIPAC conference, who related strategies in use from California to Maryland, gave her new ideas, Kogen said.

And students must retain their spirit of dedication, Barnes said.

“We are only the visionaries of a new, unwritten generation of pro-Israel activists,” Bernstein said. Students must “develop our own personal vision of a peaceful solution for the region, a vision for our campus’ pro-Israel and political communities, for our work as leaders in those communities and beyond.”

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