For the past several years, I’ve had the honor of being hosted by Hillels on college campuses throughout the United States, invited to speak with Jewish and non-Jewish students about the state of Israel in the eyes of a political and social activist fighting for LGBTQ rights, as well as an environmental expert on the water wonders my home nation has created.
In my discussions, I tell of my experiences as an elected official in Tel Aviv with years of experience in water technologies and desalination in a country that is 60% desert, as a reserve major in the Israeli army, as a leftist in a political landscape which rapidly moves to the right, and as a gay husband and a father of three in a country which refuses to allow surrogacy and to acknowledge civil marriage. My lectures are all based on the truth that should be shared about the Jewish state, its greatness and flaws alike. The responses I’ve received so far have taught me that this combination is relevant for the daily struggle of Jewish, Zionist students who find themselves defending myths and conspiracies about the nations they’ve grown to love.
On my most recent, seven-campus tour, stretching from Indiana to New York, I realized that as the years pass, my stories and impressions of Israel remain consistent, but the reality of the students I meet hardly remains as such. When my lectures end, more and more students approach me, sharing their perceived inability to “fight back” with relevant, accurate information about the situation in Israel in various fields. Some of them experience difficulties in acquiring the full scope of information on topics which are not “hot in the news”, some just feel alienated by the things they hear and read themselves.
“I love Israel”, one charming student told me, “but it’s the kind of love you need to struggle with”. Those who come to my lectures acquire some tools to cope, but with all of the pressure that college life can bring to such youngsters, I keep asking myself — what about all of those who couldn’t find the time to attend such meetings?
Rivers of words have been written and spoken about the importance of public diplomacy, the Hebrew word hasbara, which cannot be directly translated into English. I have no intention of being redundant and repeat the words of others. However, I feel that the current changes in the United States, along with alarming social and political trends In Israel, are combining into a situation which must be conveyed. More and more students in the United States are forced to fight a battle but are not given the tools to do so. Young men and women who identify themselves as Jewish or Zionists are shattered with stigmas and lies about things they’ve never heard of before. The Israel they know from home is undermined by the image of Israel they are confronted with in college, and they often remain alone.
At times, the situation in Israel worries and troubles me, and I too criticize our government more often than ever. I don’t believe there’s one easy solution to the problem I’m describing here, but I feel it must be considered as one.
Organizations like Hillel, which create frameworks and communities for these students, have become the soldiers in this front. They are finding innovative ways to showcase the complexities of Israel to Jewish students and the broader campus community alike, through lectures like mine, as well as other diverse voices sharing their Israel experience. And they are showing Israel is more than just politics through Israeli vegan cooking classes, krav maga demonstrations and other creative programming.
But Hillel must not remain there alone. The state of Israel, Jewish communities and Federation, and those of us from my generation who understand that Israel’s future will always depend on the partnership with the American Jewry, must think about what each of us can do in order to face these disturbing phenomena.
One might say that the recent wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S. shouldn’t be linked to the battle in campuses, but I find it naive to disconnect the two. Both problems begin sporadically and quietly, and we hope they will vanish by themselves. Reality proves that both problems only increase with time.
I believe it’s time to realize that the next Zionist endeavor is not necessarily in Israel. As a people, we proved in the past that when we come together and face battles — we know how to overcome them. Israel has so much to offer but it can’t expect everyone to realize it on their own. Thousands of students are willing to take part in this mission, and it is a shared responsibility to help them in this time of national need.
This story "Tel Aviv Councilman: We Must Do More To Empower Jewish Students On College Campuses" was written by Etai Pinkas Arad.