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The Debate on Campus Pro-israel Students Return to School Geared Up for Next Round of Tension

August 28, 2002
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Alison Siegel thinks twice before speaking about Israel in public.

The co-president of her Hillel group at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign, the 19-year-old said, “I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t make me a target.”

In her world, a window hosting an Israeli flag led to BB gunshots, Palestinian activists erected a refugee camp in the campus “quad,” anti-Israel editorials appear almost daily in the college paper and anywhere from five to 20 activists demonstrate against Israel in front of the student union each day.

The problem is that their message has a basic appeal — “if you’re with us, you’re for freedom; if you’re against us, you’re for oppression,” she said.

Since the Palestinian uprising broke out nearly two years ago, college campuses have emerged as hotbeds of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

The campuses have also recently drawn unprecedented attention from Jewish organizations, who see the institutions as a critical battleground for defending the Jewish state — and helping students enhance their understanding of Israel and their Jewishness.

The traditionally liberal enclaves have handed a home to activists supporting Palestinians, often perceived as the victims in the conflict with Israel.

And in extreme cases, anti-Israel rhetoric has translated to intimidation, even violence, against Jewish students — like the harassment of students leaving Yom Kippur services at the University of California at Berkeley Hillel last year.

While anti-Israel activity dipped after Sept. 11 — many Americans empathized with the Jewish state after being battered by terrorism at home — it revived in the spring.

Jewish students and professionals are expecting a continuation of such activity with the new school year, including a major campaign to divest from Israel and a campus tour by Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi slated for the fall.

But this year, Siegel and other like-minded students aim to reclaim the debate.

Siegel’s focus is moving from a reactive stance to a proactive one, with program ideas such as cultural fairs and educating about Israel’s accomplishments.

And like many other campus activists now returning to school, she has spent the summer preparing.

Siegel joined 400 students attending a pro-Israel advocacy workshop in Israel in May, which was sponsored by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

She also met hundreds of Hillel leaders at a bucolic camp in Honesdale, Pa., last week for workshops on Israel and fostering Jewish life on campus.

Hillel is one of several Jewish groups that sponsored Israel advocacy programs for students over the summer.

Jewish organizations have stepped up their attention to campuses with a variety of initiatives.

And last month Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation launched a joint body, the Israel on Campus Coalition, to oversee coordinated efforts.

The level of concern was underscored at last week’s annual Hillel leadership conference, where for the first time nearly every major Jewish organization was represented.

Jewish professionals say the crisis on the campuses is less about the strength of pro-Palestinian activists — the vocal minority causes serious trouble in only a few extreme cases.

Indeed, a recent American Jewish Committee-sponsored poll showed that American students stand with Israel versus the Palestinians at a ratio of 4-1.

The main problem, the professionals say, is the Jewish students’ ambivalence and lack of knowledge about Israel.

Although there are outstanding examples of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks on some campuses, “don’t extrapolate,” and say “every campus is on fire, every campus is under siege. It’s just not true,” said Richard Joel, president of Hillel.

“The enemy that we have to fight is not the Palestinians,” Joel said. “It’s the unbelievable ignorance of most Jewish young people to the beauty and centrality of Israel in their Jewish lives.”

For young Jewish students on American campuses, it’s often the first time they have had to defend Israel or their Jewishness, and they lack the education and experience to do so.

Even among those attending the Hillel gathering, many of whom were top campus leaders groomed by Jewish camps, day schools and youth groups, several felt confused about their own understanding of the Middle East conflict.

“Lots of people on campus who care a lot about Israel are conflicted and torn. I would go so far as to say in pain,” said Erin Scharff, a 20-year-old student at Yale.

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has in no way caused a “firestorm” on her campus, Scharff said.

But she said that many students are “yearning” for a liberal voice in support of Israel.

Engaging Jewish students in such a perspective “needs to be a priority,” she said at a seminar at last week’s conference that focused on uniting diverse stances for Israel.

For Anna Chapman, a 21-year-old senior, the lack of a nuanced approach to Israel advocacy has kept her from getting involved with the pro-Israel group at New York University.

Most of the students are too hawkish, she said. So she sticks to her involvement with Kesher, the Reform student organization.

Indeed, many of the workshops at the conference sought to reclaim Israel as a liberal cause by linking it to other progressive issues, such as women’s rights, gay rights or democracy.

For its part, Hillel has tried to bring varied voices under its tent with its new motto: “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.”

At the University of Michigan, the campus that developed that motto, Hillel students and staff are trying to put pluralism into practice.

The pro-Israel voice on campus is “as textured as the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Shena Potter, assistant director of the school’s Hillel.

She said Hillel is encouraging internal discussion on campus.

“If you really want to win the hearts and minds of the Jewish community and the community at large, you have to go beyond sound bytes,” Potter said.

That’s what 21-year old Beth Kalisch is demanding.

The material that Jewish organizations provide to students is too simplistic, said the Yale senior, who is vice president of education at her school’s Hillel.

The Jewish community has “given us talking points and advocacy suggestions,” she said, but she would like to see more guidance as well as broader view of the different positions of Jewish groups on issues related to Israel.

Kalisch, who interned at the Anti-Defamation League this summer, would like to see on which points the groups agree and disagree.

As it stands, students have to piece the information together themselves and can’t assess the credibility of the material, she said.

For 19-year old Daniella Risman, a sophomore at Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, there is a startling degree of misinformation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Students are “making noise” before they’re educated, she said.

“You need facts, and you need a deeper understanding,” Risman said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Despite the focus on Israel, which consumed about half of the agenda at the six-day conference of Hillel leaders, students are eager to mix other elements of Jewish life into the mold.

It’s a necessary reprieve for 21-year old Alan Mecklenberger, who said he is “overwhelmed with Israel politics.”

Israel advocacy is a “necessary push,” he said, but on his campus — the University of Texas at Austin — it’s “perfectly comfortable to be publicly pro-Israel.”

Mecklenberger, a member of the campus Hillel’s executive body, wants to reach out to unaffiliated Jews by building Jewish community through social programs.

Unlike New York, where Jews can feel a cultural attachment to Judaism just by living there, “in the middle of the Bible belt, you don’t have that.”

Among his ideas is reviving an old pool tournament, calling it “Cues for Jews.”

Siegel of the University of Illinois can relate to Israel fatigue.

“I get sick of” the political debate, she said.

“No one asked me if I wanted to be in a leadership position when things were so tough,” she said.

It “just so happened I went to college when it was going on. Whether or not that’s fair,” or “whether or not I wanted it,” it’s “mine to deal with,” Siegel said, adding that she’s “glad to do it.”

Still, she said, “we want to play and have fun, too. We’re still kids.”

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