In response to what many are calling the sad state of Israel advocacy on college campuses, prominent Jewish communal officials and educators have settled on a new approach to teaching undergraduates how to defend the Jewish state: Start in high school.
About 60 juniors and seniors from Jewish high schools in the New York metropolitan area turned out during a snowstorm on January 15 to attend a half-day seminar on the nuts and bolts of Israel advocacy. The event, sponsored by the newly founded Israel Advocacy High School Coalition, which consists of more than 30 Jewish organizations, featured lectures by Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, and a host of other Jewish activists. The students learned the basics of how to argue on Israel’s behalf when they enter college.
“Your student years are very critical,” Sharansky told the assembled students. He later added, “If you’re not willing to speak your mind in the days when you’re a student, then you’ll never speak your mind.”
Sharansky recently completed a 13-campus tour of American colleges and came back with a disheartening assessment on the state of pro-Israel activism on campus. When Sharansky returned to Israel he began communicating with representatives from the Jewish National Fund and the Caravan for Democracy campus project it co-sponsors about creating advocacy curriculums. Russell Robinson, the JNF’s chief executive officer, argued that a short seminar would be most effective, and the New York event was conceived; the coalition is currently in the process of bringing similar events to other parts of the country.
“You are here as a test case,” Robinson told students who gathered in New York. “We’re learning [from you] because we haven’t done it right.”
The morning was broken into several different talks, including some frank assessments of the poor record Israel has had on college campuses in recent years.
Participants were addressed by two recent university graduates who discussed their experiences. One, Josh Greenberg, is a University of Florida graduate now working at the Israeli embassy. The other, Rachel Fish, led a campaign at the Harvard Divinity School last year demanding that the school return a $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates because an Arab League think tank that bore his name had hosted Holocaust deniers.
“At Harvard there’s a level of intimidation from the faculty,” Fish said. “There’s more of a sense of using the classroom as bully pulpits to say that Israel is an apartheid state.”
Greenberg and Fish described what they called an atmosphere of fear pervading their respective campuses. At the outbreak of the intifada, Greenberg said, he circulated a petition supporting Israel and found that even sympathetic faculty members unwilling to support the Jewish state openly for fear that their tenure would be jeopardized or that they would alienate the university administration.
But despite some of the bleak undertones to the seminar, much of what was said remained upbeat.
“If you look at the great movements, it started with young people,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We need your energy to energize us.”
After attendees watched a short film about anti-Israel activism on campuses and were broken into groups where students were given 30-minute presentations on the history of Israel, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi lectured them on the top 10 ways to defend Israel in debate.
“Number one, understand your audience,” said Mizrahi, president of the Israel Project, an advocacy group that is part of the new coalition. She implored students not to waste their time talking to either strong supporters of Israel or pro-Palestinian activists — groups unlikely to be swayed in their views. Instead, Mizrahi argued, Israel activists should be reaching out to the undecided.
Mizrahi recommended that students emphasize the similarities between Americans and Israelis (without linking Israel too much with President Bush), avoid complicated explanations of Israel’s actions, and feel comfortable calling members of the press to push stories about Israel.
Many of the students at the seminar said that they had been sheltered from the shrill debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their high schools; most will be encountering anti-Israel sentiment for the first time when they reach college.
Eric Brief, a senior at Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan, said that he had not experienced any questioning of Israel’s moral rectitude at his school. He regularly attended “Knowledge Awareness” classes, which updated students about the situation, but he had never engaged any Arab students in debate — and had a fairly limited exposure to non-Jewish students in general.
JNF’s Robinson conceded that that was one of the major problems — and one of the major reasons — to start these programs early.
If you have a Jewish student “who has lived their entire life in a protected cocoon, he or she goes to college, they’ve left home, they’re 18 years old in their dorm, on their own… when they see anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda, human instinct dictates to them that they duck,” Robinson said. “We haven’t given them a morsel of an ability of how to respond. At best they duck — sometimes they join the other side because it’s safer.”
The seminar, Robinson felt, was a major success. “I haven’t [read] all the evaluations yet, but they’re off the charts,” he said. “We empowered them to want to know more. We have given them the morsels of activism.”