In wake of Gaza conflict, local students, officials expect tense atmosphere as semester begins.
In Gaza, there may be a cease-fire, but for Jewish college students, the war is about to begin.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, who directs the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, agreed that pro-Israel students are facing a challenge when they return in the fall.
“I think it’s widely held that this is going to be one of the most difficult semesters for Israel on campus in a long time. It’s not just because of the war over the summer, but it’s also because the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] moment has been gaining steam over the past few years, and the war over the summer just provides the fodder for the momentum to continue,” he said.
Through leadership training conferences and strategy meetings throughout the summer, pro-Israel Jewish campus organizations have built upon a strategy of proactive, rather than reactive education.
The approach focuses on having Jewish students meet other students directly, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in small groups, to press Israel’s case. The strategy — a marked contrast to the often guerilla theater tactics taken up by BDS supporters — emphasizes “civil discourse,” offering a range of opportunities for students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to learn about Israel apart from the conflict.
The approach also stresses building positive relationships with campus officials, faculty and student leaders, not being afraid to criticize Israel, mourning the loss of lives on both sides and showing a “genuine empathy” for the hardships faced by Palestinians.
Campus leaders and officials believe these techniques, rather than counter protests, work best to counter anti-Israel groups, the most prominent of which is Student for Justice in Palestine, known as SJP, which engage in such strategies as proposing divestment resolutions and provocative, media-grabbing actions such as die-ins or mock checkpoints. Or as happened at NYU last semester, slipping fake eviction notices under dorm room doors to highlight the plight of Palestinians whose homes have been bulldozed.
“I think for sure there is a recognition that images of Palestinian students protesting on one side of the campus and pro-Israel students protesting on the other side is not going to help us,” said the Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “Students are perfectly capable of being disinterested in the both of us.”
And, she added, “What we all have going in our favor is that the groups on campus, primarily SJP, that seek to promote divestment votes on campus are so far to the extreme, and that as long as we have the opportunity to educate the student body on the true nature of these extremist groups, then we often win the battle.”
After an anti-Israel group set up fake checkpoints at Brooklyn College, said Nadya Drukker, who heads its Hillel, pro-Israel students “wanted to run around campus and draw bodies to show what happens when you walk through a checkpoint with an explosive.” But instead, they set up a table with posters showing terrorism in New York on 9/11, in London, and in Israel and information on why Israel needs checkpoints.
At both Brooklyn College and Columbia University, students regularly set up information tables on campus where students can come and ask questions. At Columbia, students are planning to do even more of that this fall.
“Part of the plan will be a heavy on-campus demonstration — setting up tables on the main thoroughfare of campus, encouraging students to sit with us and have a conversation,” said Brian Cohen, who heads the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
The goal of that conversation, Cohen continued, is “to both learn more about what’s happening in Israel but also to express concerns or share things that they’ve heard and to be able to have very civil conversations with students of all backgrounds.”
Organizers at J Street U, which advocates a negotiated two-state solution, are focused on setting up “spaces,” such as small-group discussions where students from all political perspectives can discuss the conflict.
“Some students will be coming off of a summer of seeing really nasty rhetoric on Facebook, for example,” said Sarah Turbow, J Street U’s new director. “Others will be wanting to totally disengage from the conversation as well as other students who are thinking about these issues for the first time because of how prevalent it’s been in the news. So I think we’re coming back to campus with a student population that is far more aware and probably very angry and very frustrated about the current situation regardless of their political faction.”
For their part, national organizations such as the Israel on Campus Coalition, Hillel International and J Street U have are focused on training campus professionals and students and providing them with whatever resources they need to support the strategies they come up with.
Efforts include a micro-grant program launched by Israel on Campus Coalition for pro-Israel initiatives on campus and Hillel International’s new Hinenu initiative that includes Israel advocacy pilot programs and grants to 50 college campuses for pro-Israel programming.
Both groups, as well as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace held multi-day intensive training sessions, and Birthright Israel’s NEXT division changed its “welcome back” to include information and resources about the conflict. Since the change the percentage of students who opened the email jumped from about 20 percent to about 50 percent.
The Open Hillel movement, which seeks to eliminate the standards for partnership in Hillel International’s guidelines, is planning its first national conference for the fall with speakers “spanning the spectrum of political views on Israel-Palestine,” including Judith Butler, David Harris-Gershon and Rashid Khalidi. So far, more than 150 people have registered, said organizer Emily Unger, and the group has raised more than $13,400 to fund it through a social media fundraiser.
Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS and “seeks to end the Israeli occupation,” has seen its supporter base — those who have participated in events or signed online petitions — jump by about 50,000 over the summer to, at last count, about 170,000 supporters. They are branching into campus organizing in the fall and expect more than a dozen campus chapters to open in the fall, said campus liaison Gabi Kirk.
Back on campuses here, student groups are also focusing on educating student leaders, both Jews and non-Jews.
Brooklyn College’s Tanger Hillel is ramping up its “Da Israel Initiative,” moving the sessions to a weekly basis this fall, said Drukker to give students “an opportunity for students to really dive in, understand what’s happening and be advocates for Israel on campus.”
There will also be a daylong Israel advocacy workshop run by Makor and weekly education sessions for the broader campus community through the Israel on Campus Coalition.
For the first time, the Hillel will host two pre-army Israeli “shinshinim.” It will also be working with visiting Israeli professor Anat Maor. A former Knesset member, Maor will teach classes on Israeli politics and women’s studies in a position jointly funded by Brooklyn College's School of Humanities and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
In addition to education, organizations are focusing on building relationships with non-Jewish student groups on campus.
At NYU, the student group “Bridges: Muslim and Jewish Interfaith Dialogue at NYU” is planning a dinner the first week of September.
Brooklyn College has two groups: Creative Coexistence, where music, theater and visual arts students work on art projects together, and a volunteer group that tutors homeless children twice a week. Both are attended by a diverse group of students allowing them to form relationships, said Drukker, “so when there are issues on campus that relate to the Middle East we have a forum for conversation and really articulating what these issues are and explaining the complexity of the situation,” she said.
“And it’s worked very well,” she added.
This year Brooklyn College’s Hillel is also starting a program that trains “student ambassadors” to “reach out to faculty members and start building relationships, and sort of get friends on campus,” said Drukker.
Another strategy that both Columbia’s Cohen and NYU’s Rabbi Sarna put a lot of effort into is getting students to go to Israel.
“For me, what will always remain as part of our core strategy is getting as many people to go to Israel as possible on experiences that get them to meaningfully engage with the society,” said Rabbi Sarna.
This year, about 70 NYU students participated in the CLIP: Onward Israel program, funded by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which sent students to Israel for eight-week internships with primarily Israeli start-ups.
“Between Birthright and CLIP and students who went to Israel independently, we have over 100 students coming back from the summer having spent significant time in Israel at a time when Israel is significantly exposed,” said Rabbi Sarna. “And they are coming back with a deep understanding and a passionate attachment. And that in many ways is the best preparation for a semester like this.”
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