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UC-San Diego Hillel director reflects on divestment battle

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

August 17, 2010 | 11:09 am

Last April, Keri Copans, Hillel’s campus director at the University of California, San Diego, learned that a measure was about to come before her student government asking the university to divest from companies that do business with “occupying” powers.

The bill didn’t mention Israel by name—but everyone knew that was its target.

Copans got the call on a Sunday night. The vote was set for the following Wednesday.

“A part of me was in denial for a couple hours,” said Copans, who was hundreds of miles away in the San Francisco Bay area at the time and unprepared for the news. “I’m used to anti-Israel activities on our campus, but this was different.”

Copans rushed back to San Diego the next morning, and she spent three days strategizing with her staff and student leaders about how to respond.

“We met through the night,” she recalled. “We went down the list of everyone in the student government, saying, OK, who knows this person? She’s in your dorm? Great, go talk to her.”

By that Wednesday evening, the Hillel students were exhausted from their lobbying efforts, Copans said. The meeting room was filled to capacity for the pre-vote discussion, which went on for hours.

“The hardest thing for me to see was the tension in the room,” she said. “There were Jewish students on the other side, with people glaring at them. Some Jewish students sat in the middle—they didn’t know how they felt. Others couldn’t even be there. It was too much. It wasn’t part of how they look at their Jewish identity.”

The bill ended up going to committee, and another public forum was held the following week. Efforts to pass the measure eventually fizzled out—an outcome that Copans attributes to the perception of how divisive the measure was to the campus community.

The trouble wasn’t over yet. Two weeks later the Muslim Student Association on campus sponsored its annual “Israel is Apartheid” week, complete with a 50-foot-long reproduction of Israel’s separation wall and anti-Israel images blasting from a plasma TV set embedded in the display.

Compared to that sophisticated campaign, Copans said, the Jewish response—a line of students wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I’m pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace”—looked very weak. Even so, she said, “Only the most pro-Israel students felt comfortable standing there on the front lines.”

Afterward, the school’s chancellor met with Copans and a delegation of Jewish students and issued a statement declaring the university’s neutral stance on the week’s events. The vice chancellor for student affairs told Copans that the Muslim students had worked hard to put on their event and to line up faculty support for it. The Jewish students could do the same, the vice chancellor said.

“I thought, she’s right. We need to be more strategic and get our message out to the wider campus,” Copans said.

At the end of the school year, Hillel and Tritons for Israel, the student pro-Israel group on campus, organized a retreat to plan for the fall. In addition, a pro-Israel faculty group has come together to support the Jewish students if Israel again comes under attack.

However, Copans warned, they have to tread carefully. Countering anti-Israel messages on campus is the students’ responsibility, and while she wants them to know Hillel and other groups are there for them, it’s up to the students to decide what to do.

That position is not an easy one to convey to outside Jewish organizations, she added. Many Jewish leaders called Copans wanting to get involved. She tried to hold them off, she said, but wasn’t always successful.

“Groups from the outside swoop in and expect students to clean up the mess, but the students live on this campus—an hour after a protest, they sit with people from the other side,” she said. “The students knew what they wanted to do. The outside groups feel the students won’t do it right, but we need to let them do it themselves.”

Copans called the task of navigating the divestment bill struggle and its aftermath “the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a Hillel professional.” But she, her staff and the students got through it.

Now she wants to be better prepared and, more important, to make sure that such crises do not take focus away from Hillel’s overall mission of helping students develop a well-rounded Jewish identity.

“We need to give our students the tools they need to combat divestment, but we have to be careful,” she said. “There are Jewish students who feel left out by this. Jewish life on campus can’t just be about fighting divestment.”

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