Peter Beinart’s March column in the New York Times calling for a selective boycott of Israel raised eyebrows of critics in the pro-Israel community, as it should; such a strategy is misplaced and impractical. For all its faults, though, Beinart’s argument has one thing right: the opinions of American college students, about world affairs and the intertwined futures of Israelis and Palestinians, are important in and of themselves. Today’s student leaders are tomorrow’s leaders of countries, influential companies, foundations, and organizations. And while Israeli and Palestinian students are restricted from working together in the academy due to the academic boycott of Israel by the Palestinian people, students on American college campuses yield a subtle power that is often overlooked.
Innovative programs such as the Israel Scholar Development Fund (ISDF) and the Israel Calendar, both projects of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, are changing the scenario on campus to reflect the wide array and depth of culture and history of Israel. Since 2007, the ISDF program has brought nearly 100 Israeli professors to nearly fifty US campuses to teach Israel studies courses in disciplines ranging from sociology and film to politics and gender studies. In other words, thousands of college students across the country have benefited from learning about Israeli history, culture and society from expert Israeli thinkers and teachers from a range of fields. The seeds for meaningful change in the Israel conversation have thus been sown in campuses across the United States.
American college students can broaden the conversation to include more diverse perspectives and the complexity of life in Israel. Pro-Israel students on American campuses should partner with other cultural and ethnic organizations to host events highlighting the rich and vibrant cultures of the Middle East and the mutual characteristics of the groups that the involved organizations represent.
Students can learn from what pro-Israel and Iranian students at Emory University did in April, who came together to discuss the “Israel Loves Iran” movement that two Israeli artists launched through a Facebook postcard campaign last month.
“The idea for building a bridge with another cultural group [at Emory] came from Israel’s acceptance of multiculturalism, which is not practiced by many countries in the Middle East,” Emory Students for Israel President Brooke Feldman explained. ESI aimed to illustrate that various ethnic groups in Israel work together. “We believe sharing this reality with other student groups will diminish their perception that political relations between Israel and other governments are a reflection of their citizens’ relations,” Feldman said. “ESI specifically chose to plan a program with the Persian Club to exemplify that just because the countries we admire are at odds, we - as clubs, students and friends – do not need to be unfriendly or hostile toward [one] another.”
Feldman thought ESI’s event was successful because students who were previously unaware left knowing Israelis desperately want and fight for peace. Afterward, students were eager to spread the message. Because of the group’s success, Emory students are planning a similar program next year.
At the University of Texas in Austin, the American Jewish Committee and the David Project spurred Jewish and Latina students to mobilize and start the KenSi Collaborative – meaning “yes” in both Hebrew and Spanish – a student group that fosters mutual understanding between students from both cultures. One of KenSi’s first projects was the compilation of a Latina-Jewish cookbook that they called “The Jewtina Cookbook,” which they advertised and sold across campus.
Building the foundation for friendships that transcend traditional political boundaries and building bridges between pro-Israel individuals and other communities is invaluable. By testing the waters with small-scale events like ESI and KenSi did, students will build their courage and gain the trust of other groups to plan larger events in the future.
“What is really lacking is this intergroup coalition-building element,” said Dina Siegel Vann, who directs the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute in Washington, D.C. Through these and similar programs, college students can facilitate cross-cultural tolerance and understanding and build alliances between pro-Israel individuals and others who may not know anything about Israel but could be key partners in building a better future.
Lisa Snider is the Administrative Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.