Diaspora students taught how to make Israel's case on campus

Orthodox US high school graduates from various countries participate in a four-day seminar in Jerusalem.

campus protest 224.88 (photo credit: Archive)
campus protest 224.88
(photo credit: Archive)
Is Israel a racist state? Are the territories an obstacle to peace? Should Jewish student organizations try to prevent anti-Zionists such Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from speaking on college campuses? A group of Orthodox high school graduates from the Diaspora grappled with these thorny questions and a myriad of others during a four-day seminar this week in Jerusalem. These potential future leaders of the Jewish people are being trained by an organization called The David Project to be faithful advocates of Israel. With the experience they have gained, the young men and women hope to arrive on college campuses in America, Britain and South Africa to engage in hasbara, or public diplomacy. College campuses have become a hotbed for anti-Israel activism and The David Project, which says it does not endorse any political agenda besides Israel's right to exist securely and peaceably, has been training thousands of high school seniors and graduates to combat this activism. A total of 10,000 have been exposed to The David Project's various programs which include a semester-long, hour-a-week high school curriculum for seniors, summer seminars and programs in Israel. The majority of the high school students are Orthodox, though there are also participants from Conservative, Reform and non-denominational day schools. "We do not try to force on anyone any particular opinion or stance," Ari Applbaum, one of the educators running the seminar, said Wednesday. "We just try to present them with the facts and allow the students to reach their own conclusions." All of the participants in this week's seminar are here for a gap year between high school and college to attend yeshiva or seminary, which has become almost a rite of passage for graduates from Orthodox high schools in the Diaspora. About 80 graduates of The David Project have official positions in Jewish campus organizations across America. They receive ongoing support from The David Project's educators and advisers, who teach them how to organize pro-Israel rallies, how to cope with Israel bashing, and how to present a case for Israel to a general audience. During the four-day seminar the 23 students, who were picked from a total of 300 attending Israeli yeshivot and seminaries this year, heard lectures such as: "Realities on campus: Cultural relativism and Post-modernism," "Making the Case for Israel," "Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict," and "The Apartheid Myth." In that last lecture, one of The David Project's educators went into an in-depth explanation of the historical developments that led up to South African apartheid and showed how radically different it was from Israel's administration of Judea and Samaria. After a cursory meeting with the students and participation in a few discussions, this reporter got the impression that, as expected, these religious Zionists made up a pretty homogeneous group of right-wingers. Preaching to the choir would be the best way to describe the way the David Project's Zionist messages were received. Nevertheless, participants expressed diverse opinions on issues such as a two-state solution, the defensibility of the Law of Return, and the need to dismantle settlements in Judea and Samaria. During a group discussion, Sarah, on her way to New York University's prestigious Gallatin School of Individualized Study, said that in the present geopolitical reality she realized the necessity of a Palestinian state. "Although I am not sympathetic to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, I am aware of the fact that in the real world of politics there will be no peace here without a Palestinian state," she said. Ben, who will attend the University of Manchester this year, involved the group in the difficulty of answering the claim that the settlements in Judea and Samaria are an obstacle to the peace process. At the end of a long, involved discussion, Ben, who accepted the premise that settlements prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, said that he still did not have an answer to this question that he felt comfortable passing on. Eli, who will be enrolling in Cornell University, said he opposed a two-state solution. "I admit that some settlements might need to be dismantled," he said. "But I also believe that the Palestinians will not be satisfied with just the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1964, even before Israel had the territories, the PLO has been calling for Israel's destruction." Daniel, who will be going to Columbia University, said he was optimistic about his chances for making an impact. "I believe a lot of Jews on campus are ill informed and I hope to help them get access to the facts," he said.