June 27, 2002
Students Prepare for War of Words organizations.
"Not a day goes by that I'm not upset by something anti-Semitic."
The long-term forecast predicts a very hot autumn on American college campuses, as Israel advocates challenge a well-organized, well-financed anti-Israel campaign by pro-Palestinian activists.
Not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, the national Hillel organization in late May mounted an "Israel Advocacy Mission" that brought some 400 Jewish college students to Israel for a four-day mission aimed at showing -- and building -- solidarity with the Jewish state.
Under the slogan, "Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel," the mission included briefings by Israeli officials, such as Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's deputy foreign minister for foreign affairs; meetings with journalists and educators; a day of service projects to help those affected by terrorism; and workshops on how to educate and advocate for Israel including strategies for building coalitions with other student groups and reaching out to uninvolved Jewish students.
The need is undeniable. "Not a day goes by that I'm not upset by something anti-Semitic on campus," said Adam Tichler, a 20-year-old UCLA junior.
"We're vocal, but the whole school is against us," said Dikla Uchman, a Southern California native studying at San Francisco State, which was the site of an anti-Jewish near-riot in the spring. She said it is "very hard to be Jewish on campus," citing hostility from both Arab and left-wing groups who called Jewish activists "filthy Jew!" and told them to "get off campus!"
Students from around the country complained of campus newspapers filled with anti-Israel articles and editorials and of professors encouraging students to protest against Israel.
Of 400 participants on the four-day mission, nearly 80, including a good handful from Los Angeles, remained in Israel for an intensive and intense two-week training program aimed at providing them with resources and honing their skills for the coming battle to win the hearts and minds of fellow students. The two-week program featured in-depth background classes at Tel Aviv University, a trip to Gaza, skill-building workshops and practice sessions.
All 400 participants of the four-day mission were required to promise to return to their campuses to support Israel in September. Though the mission was "free," each student paid $250 to participate -- with $180 of that sum earmarked for their local Jewish Federation's Israel Emergency Fund.
The advocacy mission was organized with support from pro-Israel lobbying group America Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities. Footing the $300,000 tab were five noted Jewish philanthropists: World Jewish Congress Chairman Edgar Bronfman, Tulsa philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, Hillel board member Michael Steinhardt, Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Ron Lauder and Leonard Abramson, benefactor Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Philadephia.
Los Angeles participants praised the program for giving them confidence to advocate for Israel on campus, as well as for the sense of solidarity and connection they felt with other students from around the country.
"When I read what's happening on other campuses, I think 'uh oh, we're in trouble,'" said Talia Osteen, a USC film student. "But when I see these other students, I know we'll get through this, too. I met amazing students and saw my passion for Israel and for supporting Israel reflected in so many others."
Tal Zavodaver, a USC student who grew up in Woodland Hills and Agoura, agreed. "When I'm back on campus, I'll have authority when I speak out, because I was there. People will listen and hear me, even if they don't agree."
The student advocates from Los Angeles were all previously active in campus Hillels or in organizing pro-Israel activities. Almost all have at least one parent born in Israel and a fairly high proficiency in Hebrew, a circumstance reflecting in part the demographics of the L.A. Jewish community.
Ruth Yomtoubian, a Los Gatos native attending USC, called the trip "one of the best things I've ever done. I'd organized rallies before but now I can educate people. I got into the politics and history this time and I can teach people the facts. I feel empowered."