When US political candidates vie for office, it is not uncommon for a fact-finding trip to Israel to be on the campaign agenda. For a delegation of 30 college students with strong leadership skills on campus that point to possible futures in public office, heading NGOs or working in foreign policy, participation in a 10-day, pro-Israel advocacy program puts them one step ahead of the game.
The Caravan for Democracy program is co-sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and The Face of Israel, a private organization that seeks to promote Israel vis-à-vis decision-makers worldwide.
These young leaders from across the United States came to attain a greater understanding of Israel’s past, present and future.
With the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement gaining traction on US campuses, the need for these types of programs is particularly acute, organizers said.
“At a time when it is more important than ever for Israel to have allies on American college campuses, we at The Face of Israel are proud to be engaging this spectacular group of young American leaders, and empowering them to change the conversation about Israel in their communities back home,” Face of Israel CEO Ariel Bulstein said.
At the Prima Kings hotel in Jerusalem, six of the program participants gathered to discuss what they’ve learned so far on their trip and the significance such an experience carries for them professionally and personally.
Alexis Chambers, a senior at Ohio University, is majoring in political science with a minor in African American studies. She chose to take part in the program so she can combat the incendiary hate speech of the BDS movement prevalent on her campus.
Her school made headlines in September when student leader Megan Marzec – inspired by the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos – dumped a bucket of artificially colored red water on her head as part of her protest against the Israeli “occupation.”
In her video later dubbed the Blood Bucket Challenge, she proclaimed, “As student senate president, I’m sending a message of student concern about the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I’m urging you and OU [Ohio University] to divest and cut all ties to academic and other Israeli institutions and businesses.”
Calls for her to resign followed immediately, and the tensions that video raised reverberated across campus.
“When it first happened a lot of people were just really shocked, it was just like, ‘I can’t believe she did this,’” Chambers said.
“From my perspective, it really seemed out of line for someone of her position to have said something like that. Of course, everyone is entitled to their position, but for her to be a student government leader and to speak for the entire student body and not acknowledge the Israelis or the Jews on campus and to just completely disregard their feelings, it was just like, ‘Wow, how did she get in office? How did we elect her? What went wrong? “Students didn’t know what side to take about the conflict or what was happening.
And students who were involved, they didn’t feel comfortable walking through campus,” Chambers said.
Natalie Davis, a junior at Ohio State University, said the tenants of BDS are inherently contradictory with academic learning, which should promote openness and dialogue, not shut out an entire swath of people.
“Student government has no position in this conflict. The other thing with BDS, at least at Ohio State, is when you really look at what we’re investing in and if you follow the UN human rights resolution, we would end up divesting from ourselves. It’s not actually a logical solution or way to address the issue,” Davis said.
Their trip, which includes visiting with security officials along the Gazan and Syrian borders, speaking with students at the Israel Institute of Technology-Technion in Haifa, briefings at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa and a meeting with representatives of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, provides as much information as possible so they are better informed to speak about the conflict when they return to the US.
“Sometimes we may feel like we’re getting a single perspective from a single person as far as this trip goes, but I think we’re able to overall balance the arguments a lot better because of the perspective we’re getting by being on the ground here,” William Baxley, a senior at Jacksonville University, explained when asked about the balance in the program’s itinerary.
What kind of message do these diplomats in training hope to impart to their peers back home? “It’s not what the media portrays at all, and that it kind of sucks because you do have to come to really get that understanding,” Chambers explained. “There isn’t a lot of conversation going on outside of the conflict about the culture or anything else and just what the daily life is like – it’s a country, it’s not a war zone.”
“I think there’s a tendency to try to make the issue so black and white, and I think I would really encourage people that it’s okay if you really don’t know how to feel about it,” Baxley said.