As a campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), I work with student leaders to help organize pro-Israel campaigns and to defend against the slander that Israel is currently facing from American academia. ZOA is committed to the development of young leaders on campus who become lifelong advocates for Israel and Zionism. As part of this effort, the ZOA has for many years run an annual Student Leadership Mission to Israel to help students learn the facts about the conflict on the ground. In order to be eligible for the mission, students must have previously visited Israel and be active on campus in advocating for Israel. The trip runs for a little over two weeks and students visit strategic sights and meet policy makers with the focus on learning to feel comfortable with their advocacy skills so that when they return to their campuses in the USA, they feel fully confident in supporting the just cause of Zionism. This year, I have had the privilege to be one of the two campus coordinators leading the trip and have been traveling through Israel with 25 student activists from various American college campuses.
During the first week of the trip, students met with Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya''alon, former Ambassador to the United Nations; Dore Gold, Member of Knesset Aryeh Eldad; Itamar Marcus, Director of the Palestinian Media Watch; and Khaled Abu Toameh, the Israeli-Arab journalist for the Jerusalem Post. They learned first-hand about important topics that have a major impact on the American perspective about Israel and the Middle East, such as incitement by the Palestinian media, the various positions taken by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regarding Israel and the situation Israel faces in the world through demonization in the media and throughout the world community. Students also have the opportunity to ask questions following the speeches. Students clearly appreciated this opportunity, “to learn more about the situation first hand and to meet actual policy makers,” according to Baruch Lane from Queens College, NY. Each day, following our activities students talk together about what they heard and how it applies to past and future experiences on American campuses.
This past week students also experienced Israeli culture and gained a feel for the country. The first Friday night in Israel was spent at the Kotel (Western Wall) with students gaining an appreciation of the importance of Jerusalem for the state of Israel. They also travelled to Sderot to see how the residents live under rocket fire and spoke with former residents of Gush Katif, who five years after the Gaza expulsion still have not been resettled to permanent housing.
The Sderot experience clearly had a major impact on trip participants. According to Hallie Silvermetz, University of Maryland, “The most striking moment was being in Sderot and seeing a playground next to a bomb shelter. It was a clash of realities to see kids trying to live freely while the terrorists are trying to disturb their lives as much as possible and to take advantage of their vulnerability.” Rivkah Ginat, University of Illinois-Chicago, noted that she now “feels more confident to address controversial issues on campus” after visiting Sderot.
The issues that students are currently facing on US college campuses have become much more blatantly anti-Zionist and, at times cross the line into anti-Semitic. It is clear that certain student groups on campus have a goal of demonizing Israel, at times, with the support of professors. According to student activist Daniel Levi from Rutgers University, NJ, his “campus is a mixture of pro-Israel and anti-Israel groups.” Levi noted that although the pro-Israel students hosted a couple of speakers this past semester, including Ishmael Khaldi, a Bedouin who served in Israel''s Defense Ministry, the students in the opposition group BAKA: Students for Justice in the Middle East took things a step further by holding a fundraiser called “US to Gaza” which brought out over 300 students to deliver “humanitarian aid” to Hamas-controlled Gaza. Also, the same group held other events with anti-Zionist speakers, such as Norman Finkelstein.
Clearly, it is a difficult time for our student advocates on US campuses with so much misinformation and bad press. We hope that over the next week, they will continue to expand their depth of knowledge based on the facts and continue to strengthen their advocacy skills so they can effectively respond to the difficult questions that arise and garner support for Israel on campus.