For Rebecca Schwab, senior advisor to the Midwest board of Young Judea, the lack of Israel engagement on college campuses is one of the primary challenges facing Zionist youth movements in America.
“A lot of campuses talk about anti-Semitism and how to overcome it in a politically correct way,” Schwab said. “But really the problem is under-engagement, because you’ll have a lot of dreamers who really want to put on these Israel advocacy events, [including] training seminars and bringing in speakers, but the [student] population doesn’t show up.”
That was just one of the contemporary issues on the table for more than 150 Jewish college students and 30 on-campus professionals discussed last month in Miami at the 2012 Young Zionist Leadership Conference (YZL), a three-day leadership training and professional development gathering sponsored by the World Zionist Organization (WZO). According to Samantha Vinokor, WZO’s communications director, Zionist groups from across the spectrum of political and religious affiliation were able to find out “‘Where are you coming from, where am I coming from?’ and happily meet in the middle under this cause.” Groups such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Stand With Us, The David Project, J Street, and others were “brought together for one of the first times ever that we’re aware of,” Vinokor said.
“We literally sat in that room, and the discussion was, ‘We are the Zionist leaders of tomorrow,’” said Schwab, who is from the University of Wisconsin. “And someone said, ‘Oh wow, it’s so cool, I already know you guys, so when you’re huge in the Jewish community, I’ll already know who you are.”
The conference’s keynote speaker was Israel Maimon, who served as cabinet secretary under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharona Whisler, who represented the Southeastern Region of ZOA at the conference, said she asked Maimon if Sharon, at the time, believed the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza would bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Maimon, according to Whisler, said there were reports indicating that peace would not be attained after the disengagement, but that Sharon thought disengagement was the right thing to do and “still thinks it was the right thing to do.” Whisler also asked Maimon what went wrong with the planned compensation for Jews who had to leave their Gaza homes and lost their jobs—many of them in agriculture. Maimon responded that Israel “definitely learned some lessons” from the Gaza pullout, but added that Jewish refugees did receive compensation.
“To me, and to ZOA, it’s still unacceptable just to give the compensation [to Jewish Gaza refugees] because you can’t just start a farm anywhere, and they really needed more help than that, especially since it was the ministry of agriculture that sent them to live there in the first place,” Whisler said.
Attending the conference on behalf of J Street was Ira Stup, East Coast Organizer for J Street U. Whisler said she was surprised to see Stup there “because I don’t consider J Street representative of true Zionist values, and this was a young Zionist leadership conference.”
Stup did not respond to an interview request from JointMedia News Service. Vinokor said that from WZO’s perspective, “We thought it was really important to have someone from J Street there, because that is a voice in the Jewish community that obviously not everyone agrees with … but we were trying to bring together the future of Zionist leadership in North America, and J Street is a part of that conversation.”
Whisler called the conference a “really great opportunity to network with students from all over the country who are interested in Zionism and advocating on campus.” Schwab was intrigued to learn how different Zionist youth movements could work together.
“We’re dealing with very, very educated Zionists, who are probably under 21 and yet have been involved for [about] 12 years, and you see a wide range of abilities,” she said.