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With School Year About to Begin, Hillel Prepping for Renewed Activism

August 27, 2003
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In an ode to pop culture, one of the world’s largest annual gatherings of Jewish student activists began with a video spoof of MTV’s "The Real World."

Last week’s gathering, organized by Hillel and held at Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania, also featured Jewish hip-hop artist Remedy, who sported a Jewish version of the genre’s bling-bling — a monstrous Magen David — and belted an angry anthem about the Holocaust.

And students wore Hillel stickers alluding to college cult favorites like Homer Simpson and John Goodman, who played an over-the-top Jewish convert in the movie "The Big Lebowski."

Indeed, the extent to which Hillel used pop-culture cool to court students at Hillel’s Charles Schusterman International Leader’s Assembly hints at the key challenge for Jewish activists on college campuses: attracting students.

Heated pro-Palestinian activism on campus has prompted an outpouring of pro- Israel advocacy, but the foremost concern for Jewish organizations on campus remains the basic battle against Jewish apathy and ignorance.

"It’s very easy to make Israel the total issue, and we have got to prevent that from happening," said Avraham Infeld, Hillel’s interim director.

Apathy, or the possibility to just "drop out of being Jewish" in college, is still the number one challenge for Hillel, he said.

The "first step is to coalesce and get a group of people together," agreed Shoshana Rudnick, 19, who discussed the draw of a possible Hillel sports team with a fellow Ithaca College sophomore, Laura Bauman.

But Israel remains an intense focus.

Many Jewish students are struggling to craft a message on Israel that appeals to the liberal mentality prevalent on campuses — and among many Hillel students.

"The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect," said Will Dempster, a sophomore at George Washington University, but Israel "leaves them no choice." He said he was referring to the desperation of the Palestinian population, which he believes fuels support for Hamas.

"It’s so hard being a moderate because no one ever agrees with you," said Dempster, an intern with Hillel’s Grinspoon Israel advocacy program.

Dempster hopes to create programs for Jewish students "who don’t feel there’s a place for them currently" in groups they consider too pro-Israel, as well as a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This past year, the U.S.-led war on Iraq overshadowed most anti-Israel activity on campus. As that recedes from the headlines, however, some expect to see renewed activism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year.

In fact, the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq may fuel comparisons between Israel and America as occupiers, said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella of 26 Jewish groups.

"We know that the theme of ‘End the occupation at any cost’ is going to be used," he said.

Firestone also anticipates that detractors will focus on the security fence Israel is building, using slogans such as "Tear down the wall."

Those messages likely will loom large at Palestinian solidarity conferences to be held at Rutgers University and Ohio State University in October.

Before the conference, the Rutgers Hillel plans to sponsor a week of programs under the banner, "Israel inspires," with visits by young Israelis, elected officials and Israeli drummers.

On a broader scale, Hillel, in partnership with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is planning a winter mission to Israel that is designed to teach students skills on a range of topics, from Israel advocacy to social justice.

The trip is a jumping-off point for students to blitz their campuses in spring, when nicer weather generally corresponds with more activism, Firestone said.

In the meantime, Hillel and other Jewish organizations such as AIPAC — which this summer held a workshop for activists from 60 high-profile campuses — are trying to boost students’ proactive Israel advocacy skills.

For example, the Leaders Assembly provided slick and sophisticated training for its Grinspoon interns. Political consultant Brent Silver displayed a PowerPoint presentation with communications advice such as don’t repeat a negative, don’t lose one’s temper and do speak simply and sincerely.

Silver underscored the point with video footage to display the do’s — with shots of Bill Clinton — and don’ts — with examples from Al Gore — of effective public speaking.

AIPAC instructs student activists to build coalitions with campus influentials, such as student government leaders, college Democrats and Republicans, and reporters for the campus newspaper, and to lobby local members of Congress.

"We will be successful," said Daniel Rubinstein, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin who interned for AIPAC this summer. "It’s about relationships and politics."

Like many students, Rubinstein said Jewish organizations’ efforts have given him a base of knowledge to fight anti-Israel activity.

He can "pick up the phone and get any resource" he needs, Rubinstein said.

But even Rubinstein grapples with how to respond to anti-Israel rhetoric, recalling incidents when he wished he had responded with a real zinger.

A lot of Jews on campus "know that Israel is important, but when it comes to real confrontation they don’t know how to respond," Rubinstein said.

That was evident when one student at the Leaders Assembly, explaining his inability to confront anti-Israel activists, asked what the intifada was.

Such ignorance is indicative of the state of the American Jewish education system, Infeld said.

"We eat the" waste products of that system, Infeld said.

Of course, the issues vary from campus to campus and from activist to activist.

Israel is the central issue for Ben Herman, 19, a member of the MADPAC pro- Israel group at the University of Wisconsin.

Palestinian activists, who outnumber pro-Israel ones, are winning the battle on campus, he said.

Many Jewish students either want to take a sort of vacation from their Jewish life or are "not as well-informed as they should be," he said.

In part, that may be due to religious-secular rifts in the Jewish student community.

At Princeton, the Center for Jewish Life has a "mystique of being this Orthodox clique," according to student Dylan Tatz, 19.

The chief challenge is "getting people who haven’t set foot in a Hillel to set foot in a Hillel," Princeton sophomore Nathaniel Fintz said.

Nicole Rubin and Rachel Ganin, sophomores at American University, say they struggle to find a Jewish community on campus.

Rubin said she is a "little ashamed" to be associated with the pro-Israel group on campus, which she feels is anti-Palestinian.

Meanwhile, Ashley Winter, 19, treasurer of Rutgers Hillel, is enthusiastic about the upcoming "Israel Inspires" week.

While Jewish students have some nervousness and concern about the planned Palestinian solidarity conference, Winter said, there is "excitement for what we’re going to be able to do" to portray Israel as a "source and wellspring of Jewish heritage," culture and life.

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