For Jewish students attending colleges like UC Irvine, Duke University or Columbia University, the shock of moving away from home is often only equaled by the shock on encountering virulent anti-Zionism on campus.
From firebrand anti-Israel speakers to demonstrations calling for divestment from the Jewish state, American universities have increasingly become bastions of anti-Israeli sentiment that occasionally bleed into anti-Semitism. Many newly minted freshmen are unprepared for such a hostile environment and often feel besieged or worse, experts say. That Muslim student activists often know more about the Middle East conflict and present their case more persuasively than Jewish students do only exacerbates their frustration.
That's why some Jewish groups have now trained their sights on reaching out to high school students. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for instance, has just begun publishing a weekly online newsletter for high school students called the Israel Highway (www.israelhighway.org). At Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, seniors enroll in a semester-long course on Israel advocacy that features guest speakers and an in-depth history of Zionism and the creation of Israel. After years of educating Jewish university students, organizations like Jewish National Fund, the American Jewish Committee and StandWithUs are teaching high school students how to become foot soldiers for Israel and Judaism.
"When students get to campus, there's a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment that they aren't exposed to before leaving home," said Michelle Beller, high school coordinator for Caravan for Democracy High School Edition, a new program created by Jewish National Fund (JNF), Media Watch, American Friends of Likud and other groups. "Rather than not knowing how to respond, we want to infuse them with knowledge about Israel and give them tools to [fight back]. If they don't do it, who will?"
The Zionist Organization of America has begun offering advocacy training for high school students partly so they aren't "susceptible to being taken in by the lies of the Arab propaganists [at universities] who call Israel a human-rights abusing horror," ZOA National President Morton Klein said.
Caravan for Democracy High School Edition made its official debut Oct. 17 in Los Angeles at a JNF conference. An estimated 120 Southland-area juniors and seniors from Tarbut V'Torah, Milken and other religious and secular campuses participated. The event featured sessions on Israeli history and advocating for the Jewish state and included a speech by Ra'anan Gissin, senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In a reflection of Caravan's growing influence, 350-area high school students attended its second Los Angeles event last November. Natan Sharansky, minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs delivered the keynote speech. StandWithUs, working in conjunction with Caravan, will host on advocacy event for high school students an April 17.
Caravan, which has already offered programs in San Francisco, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, plans to sponsor 25 advocacy sessions around the country for Jewish teenagers in the first half of 2005.
Like Caravan, StandWithUs now focuses an increasing amount of its energy on high school students. During the past 18 months, the group has held advocacy sessions at 35 area high schools, including Shalhevet, Milken and Taft.
At such events, StandWithUs speakers typically tell students about the anti-Israel sentiment they can expect to encounter on campus and how to combat it, said Roz Rothstein, the group's executive director.
To supplement the high school visits, StandWithUs has begun sponsoring events outside of the classroom to create a community of young pro-Israel activists. In early March, the executive director of Palestinian Media Watch, Itamar Marcus, met over pizza at UCLA with 60 high school students to discuss anti-Semitism in the Palestinian media, among other topics. Future events might include concerts, dinners and movies -- combined with advocacy sessions -- that would deepen the knowledge and develop closer links among the pro-Israel high school students, Rothstein said.
Whereas Caravan and StandWithUS focus on high school students, a program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) emphasizes those who teach them.
The AJC, in conjunction with Solomon Schechter High School of New York, created Israel Knowledge, Advocacy and Responsibility (IKAR) three years ago, a program that offers lesson plans, visual aids and lecture materials. Among IKAR's suggested topics for discussion are defending Israel in the media and spotlighting its standing as the sole democracy in the Middle East. Other subjects include the refugee crisis that followed Israel's creation and the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, said Rebecca Neuwirth, AJC's director of special projects.
"There's not very much out there for high school-aged students," she said. "We're trying to change that."