Critics often say the media has little or nothing good to say about Israel. The same could be said about the campus situation, only most of those writing about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities are Jews. In these blogs, I’ve often tried to correct the false impression that the campuses are on fire, but sometimes have been guilty myself of focusing on the negative. The truth is that a lot of positive activities are going on that are being ignored and deserve our attention.
Let’s start with Birthright. This program is unquestionably the most influential created in a generation. Research has shown that participants develop a greater attachment to Israel and to Judaism and all you have to do is talk to one of them to understand the transformative impact of those 10 days in Israel. I’m not sure how many people know how Birthright has expanded to include trips of all kinds – political, adventure and sports, arts and entertainment, culinary, LGBTQ, social action and spirituality – to name just a few. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to speak to a group of potential donors and the real star of the evening was a young woman who went on a trip specially designed for students with special needs and eloquently described how it had moved her. There is now a trip that should appeal to every Jewish student, and I have yet to meet anyone, including my son, who did not have the time of their life on the trip.
Visiting Israel is not just about education and fun. Many of the Birthright trips are run through Hillel, and some of the universities have developed their own innovative programming to give students hands-on experience working with Israelis. For example, 10 students from the University of North Carolina had an opportunity to directly help Israelis by extending their trip to work with refugee and low-income populations.
Hillel has gotten a lot of unjustified criticism, primarily by groups and individuals who believe that one-sided criticism of Israel should be welcomed at Hillel, and are upset with the organization’s principled stand against sponsoring programs that delegitimize Israel. Hillel’s doors remain open to any student and there is no lack of opportunity for “wrestling with Israel.” Meanwhile, Hillels have been quietly effective in mobilizing students to deter and defeat BDS campaigns, some of which are supported by the same groups that believe Hillel is denying them a non-existent right to come into their homes and vilify Israel.
Unfortunately, Hillel is not getting the attention it deserves for the positive agenda it is pursuing on campuses across the country. Hillel International and the Jewish Agency, for example, organized a second annual retreat for students from San Diego State University and UC San Diego. The 30 participants spent two days engaged in activities such as Krav Maga and Israel advocacy training (combat of another kind) as well as learning about Israeli history and culture.
Students at a number of universities, including Brown, Stanford and UC Santa Barbara had the good fortune to hear from Academy Award-winning Actor Michael Douglas and former Soviet Refusenik Natan Sharansky. Douglas related his spiritual journey and how he became more committed to Jewish continuity and the State of Israel after his son asked to have a bar mitzvah. Sharansky brought his unique perspective as one who was jailed for his beliefs and, after being released and making aliyah to Israel, became a leading Israeli politician and defender of human rights.
Another program designed to raise awareness about human rights was sponsored by Boston University Hillel and featured Jonathan Elkhoury, a Phoenician Lebanese man who lives in Israel, and is an advocate for women, LGBTQ and minority rights throughout the region. Like many Hillel programs, this attracted a mixed audience of Jewish and non-Jewish students who got to hear a very different message than the one Israel’s detractors try to sell suggesting Israel is the world’s leading human rights violator. Through programs like the Elkhoury lecture, students learn that Israel is, in fact, one of the most stalwart defenders of human rights.
Some students may be familiar with the record of Israeli innovation that has given the country the moniker – “Startup Nation.” Hasbara Fellowships and Israel Ideas partnered to bring 13 Israel innovation fairs to campuses. This program is innovative in itself because it requires the sponsors to partner with a minimum of five non-Jewish organizations to introduce students to what makes Israel such an exciting and profitable place to invest and do business. More than 450 students, most non-Jews, participated in the first fair at UMass Amherst.
At Rutgers, Max Kleinman, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, organized a two-week trip to Israel for 15 students, including Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and two Jews. Kleinman told the New Jersey Jewish News the goal of the five-year-old program was to “break down stereotypes about Israel they might have read about in the media [and] study the Israeli social welfare system, which is much more advanced than ours.” The group visited absorption programs, entrepreneurs, and Druze and Bedouin communities, which gave them a greater appreciation of how Israel takes care of its most vulnerable populations.
Last December, 420 pro-Israel students from more than 160 campuses, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Small Liberal Arts Colleges, Christian Centered Campuses, and Hispanic Serving Institutions, participated in AIPAC's 28th Saban Leadership Seminar. Like most AIPAC events, these seminars feature leading experts discussing the issues of the day and training students in political activism. For example, national leaders of College Democrats and College Republicans discussed the importance of bipartisan support for Israel, Aaron David Miller spoke about the peace process and Israel Defense and Armed Forces Attaché Yaacov Ayish reviewed the U.S.-Israel alliance. In March, AIPAC is expected to host a record 4,000 students for its annual policy conference, which is the must-attend event for any student interested in Israel and politics. It will undoubtedly be especially interesting in this presidential election year.
These are just a handful of examples of the positive activities going on around the country that are too often overshadowed by exaggerated reports of Jewish students under siege. In future columns, I will highlight more of the exciting programs that are building Jewish identity and closer identification with Israel. Resources need to be devoted to the fight against BDS, but we will have far greater influence on the next generation by providing them the education and opportunities to see Israel for themselves, and directing their passion into positive action to help their fellow Jews and the people of Israel.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.