Jewish Journal

Groups Keep Up Guard on Campuses

by Rachel Brand

Posted on Jan. 30, 2003 at 7:00 pm

When Justin Levy returned to UCLA for his senior year in September 2002, he was expecting a continuation of the previous school year's belligerent anti-Zionist rallies and aggressive anti-Israel fervor.

What he found was exactly the opposite. The divestment campaigns and public demonstrations that made last year's headlines were nowhere to be found.

While the calm should have put Levy at ease, the drastic atmosphere change instead made him apprehensive.

"The Muslim Student Association and other groups are trying to present themselves as rational," said Levy, the UCLA student government budget review director. "It is a bit more disturbing, because they might have the chance to be a lot more successful in a lot of the things they do, because they haven't necessarily moderated their views. They've only moderated their actions."

Like Levy, many Jewish students and leaders don't know what to do with the sudden tranquility on campus: Should they continue with their efforts of hasbara (advocacy) planned during last year's anti-Israel activity rampant on campus, or should they sit back quietly in order not to let sleeping dogs lie?

"There's more discussion about what kind of information the students hand out on campus," said Sarah Shpall, a Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow at USC. "Is it worthwhile to hand out materials that are more provoking and spur dialogue or do you hand out information that follows the current?"

Shpall and 19 other professionals from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life  joined some 200 students at "Action Israel 2," a weekend seminar for Jewish student leaders from the Western region held last October, and planned again as a one-day seminar on March 9.

"What we're teaching these students is pro-activity, regardless of how besieged they feel," said Lauren Foster, academic affairs director for the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles. "Certainly, things change on campus, but they need to be doing their own thing anyway."

"They have to have their own leadership," she said. "This is not a reactive thing that we're trying to instill in them. It's long- term thinking."

Maia Budnero, a UCSB junior and coalition chair for American Students for Israel, the school's pro-Israel group, felt that Action Israel 2 offered great contact information. "There's so much out there; you just need to take the initiative," Budnero said.

Following her own advice, Budnero organized a Jan. 15 leadership banquet with two people she met at the conference: David El Baz of Betar on Campus and Gary Ratner from the American Jewish Congress. The invitation-only event for presidents and vice presidents of every campus organization, included booths and speakers to teach the student leaders about American Students for Israel and the Jewish state.

"The point is not only to form relationships, but also if we have a pro-Israel rally, it won't just be 20 Jewish students," Budnero said. "There will be more people -- more allies."

Action Israel 2 -- sponsored by The Jewish Federation and the Los Angeles Hillel Council, the Israeli Consulate, Betar on Campus, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League -- reflects how local groups have banded together to focus their campus efforts.

"There's a level of cooperation in L.A. that is not happening in other cities right now," said Steven Mercer, director of the College Campus Initiative (CCI), the organization which initially started Action Israel. "It doesn't make sense for us to do this alone. It's not just the Federation, not just Hillel, not just the Consulate: We've really entered into this as a coalition and we're convinced that there's no other way to do this at this level."

Other local united efforts are aimed beyond the campus, such as the Jan. 19 seminar, "Learn How to Defend Israel: On Campus, in the Media, to the White House, at Your Office" hosted by StandWithUs and sponsored by 20 other Jewish organizations and 10 synagogues.

Students at the conference participated in a student-only workshop led by UC Berkeley's Oren Lazar, past co-chair of the Israel Action Committee at the school, and Chris Silver, current co-chair of the Israel Action Committee at UC Berkeley, in which they learned effective arguments that they can use to oppose common pro-Palestinian positions.

"There's very much still pressure on campus," said Shanit Hassid, one of the founders of Bruins for Israel, the pro-Israel group at UCLA, and speaker at the conference. "The pro-Palestinian students know their stuff in a way Jewish students do not."

This is one reason that despite the calm, activists are continuing their work on campus. Another reason is the anti-war movement on campus, which often takes on anti-Israel tones.

 "At the beginning of the year, we thought the main issue would be divestment, but it really hasn't panned out on our campus," said Jarad Bernstein, a member of American Students for Israel. "The biggest problem is the anti-war movement, which has not necessarily focused on Israel, but there is always the threat that it will."

 The anti-war movement poses a serious threat, says Wayne Firestone, the director of the Center of Israel Affairs at Hillel.

"We're noticing increasingly that the more radical Palestinian student leaders are jumping on the anti-war bandwagon as a vehicle for Israel bashing, such as some of the groups that failed to utilize the divestment programs among the mainstream," Firestone said. "A lot of these same players are simply hitching their whole campaign to the anti-war movement, which will have a much more mainstream audience. That's a far more difficult dynamic to address, because Jewish students will be on both sides of the war issue."

On the national level, AIPAC remains steadfast in the battle on campus.

"Students don't understand and don't have information about Israel and its purpose," said Rebecca Needler, AIPAC press secretary. "And the apathy and ignorance is a battle that must be fought regardless of what is going on on campus."

During the summer, the pro-Israel lobby group instituted a leadership development program targeting students on 60 campuses across the country for special advocacy training. The schools include UCLA, UCSB and UCSD.

At the beginning of January, student leaders from each of the 60 campuses attended the second installment of the Saban National Political Leadership Training Seminar in Washington, D.C. They received four all-expense-paid days of intensive advocacy training.

Some organizations take innovative approaches. Exploring new avenues of education and advocacy, BetarOnCampus.com recently launched IsraelVotes.com, an interactive Web site that aims to provide educators and students with information about Israeli elections.

The site emphasizes the democratic nature of the Jewish State and includes election news, information on the Israeli parliamentary system and various platforms and opportunities for pre- and post-election educational programming, including mock elections in which students can cast their votes directly on the Web site.

But many Jewish leaders believe that advocacy is more than political lobbying and focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some 500 campus professionals from across the country discussed this very issue in December at Hillel's annual International Professional Staff Conference in Princeton, N.J.

"Topics raised suggested there is a variety of Israel programming that has been overtaken by the conflict over the last couple of years," Firestone said. Hillel leaders hope that with a milder environment on campus, the organization will have the opportunity to return to programming that focuses on the positive and broader themes of Israeli society and culture, including Israeli peoplehood, the aspects of Israeli society as a startup, innovative culture and the country's diverse geography.

As a pluralistic organization, Hillel will not take a stand on the war. "We view Hillel as being a safe haven for Jewish students to discuss all current events," Firestone said. The organization's future programming will not dictate, it will merely inform such discussion, and attempt to contemporize Jewish positions and laws on war.

For now, some Jewish professionals like USC's Shpall are choosing to take the education route, focusing on programming that emphasizes the positive aspects of the State of Israel, such as an Israel Shabbat and an Israel Awareness Week.

UCLA Hillel is taking things one step further, using the lull to institute programs that foster coexistence between Jewish and Muslim students on campus. Aiming to promote unity, some UCLA programs have included building coalitions with moderate Arabs and Muslims, such as a Ramadan break-the-fast, sponsoring speakers who "offer healing messages of hope and coexistence" and raising funds to endow academic chairs, programs and graduate fellowships in Israel studies.

Currently, UCLA Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is teaching a special seminar called, "Let There Be Light: Encounters Between Isaac and Ishmael," on the relationship between Islam and Judaism.

For Seidler-Feller, it is not the rise and fall of the political thermometer that dictates his approach to programming on campus. He has a long-term goal in mind -- promoting tolerance.

"Whatever the climate," he said, "when there are leaders that are willing to take courageous steps, there can be breakthroughs."

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