Hoenlein: 'Ignorance is not an option'

Conference of Presidents CEO says "students need to care about off-campus developments because they need to know what’s going on in world.”

Hoenlein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hoenlein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The pro-Israel Jewish community has a lot on its agenda right now: Gilad Schalit was recently released in a complex and difficult prisoner exchange deal, the Palestinian Authority brought its unilateral bid for statehood to the United Nations, UNESCO has accepted Palestine as a member state, a new IAEA report confirms that Iran continues to pursue its nuclear weapons development plans and global efforts to delegitimize Israel continue unabated.
According to the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, these off-campus developments are just as pertinent to students as to the rest of the pro-Israel Jewish community.
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“Students need to care about off-campus developments because they need to know what’s going on in the world,” Hoenlein told ICB in an interview in his New York office. “It’s their world and they’re going to inherit it. Ignorance is not an option.”
"Ignorance, indifference and apathy are the top three challenges facing the on-campus pro-Israel community today," Hoenlein said.
Noting that Israel has more supporters than detractors, he stressed the importance of garnering support and understanding among those who are not engaged. "Indifference, when it comes to Israel, is very negative,” he remarked. "When students move to a status of indifference, it endangers support, especially for future generations.”
When Hoenlein was a student at Temple University in the 1960s, the central social change movement that mobilized the Jewish community was the campaign to free Soviet Jewry. While he believes that many campuses have more students active in Israel advocacy than ever before, students today are not as well-mobilized to fight against delegitimization of Israel as they were in the 1960s, when they were leaders in the struggle for Soviet Jews.
“People aren’t as attuned to going to demonstrations as a vehicle to give expression, as they were when I was a student,” Hoenlein remarked. “Jewish students were more motivated and active back then. Nowadays, students accomplish things virtually, via email and Facebook, but we still need people to come to the streets and let their voices be heard.”
Hoenlein cited mobilization, education and activation as the top three goals for the pro-Israel campus community today, but he stressed that students don’t need to achieve this alone. He called on the off-campus community to step in and help students as part of what he said must be a direct, linear relationship.
"The campus is often a laboratory which brings forth challenges that ultimately affect the community as a whole,” Hoenlein stated. “The community has an obligation to step in and help students. We need to give them the confidence to act and the resources to be effective. We need to help them through education so they know how to answer."
“Jewish students need to know they have a place to go when they need help and assistance,” he added. “Each community should reach out to the campuses in their area to help foster those activities.”
Hoenlein noted that organizations like the Conference of Presidents can help the pro-Israel Jewish community organize to help college students. For over 50 years, the Conference has worked to mobilize support for Israel by analyzing issues and articulating unified community response on issues of national and international concern. The Conference serves as the representative body for American Jewry, bringing together 52 politically and religiously diverse national Jewish organizations. It partners with the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) to produce Israel Campus Beat.
The importance of student outreach does not begin with college. Hoenlein stressed that getting high school students involved in Israel advocacy is central to any plans for building a strong campus Israel network in the future. The Conference supports the development of an Israel curriculum to be implemented in Jewish high schools as well as private and public schools for non-Jewish students.
Other strategies to engage young people in Israel advocacy include sending celebrities to Israel who can extol its virtues upon their return. Hoenlein noted that stars of “House,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Twilight,” “90210,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Avatar” recently returned from Israel and have been sharing their experiences and impressions in the media and with fans.
“It's clear that Israel is a nation of good and warm people,” “Crossing Jordan” star Miguel Ferrer told Arutz Sheva. “It's remarkable how different the reality of this country is from what one hears. I can definitely commit myself to being an ambassador of truth for the State of Israel and offer positive messages on behalf of the people of Israel and Jerusalem.”
These trips, which are organized by America's Voices in Israel, have been producing similar results for years. Hoenlein said that the organizers hope the celebrities' words and impressions will reach the minds and hearts of young adults in America and around the world.
“We are looking for people to relate to young audiences and communicate with them so they can learn the truth in an engaging way,” Hoenlein explained. “We need to utilize every channel possible because this is a very serious time and we can’t afford to lose Israel supporters.”
Hoenlein stressed that every world event can be a teachable moment for students on campus.
“Shalit’s release should be used on campus as an example of how Israel values every life as opposed to Israel’s enemies,” he suggested. “It’s a teachable moment to explain what Israel is really about.
Hoenlein also stressed the need to bring awareness to campus of the PA’s bid for statehood at the UN and UNESCO’s acceptance of Palestine as a member state.
“Students need to show how the UN is being manipulated. Palestinians are trying to bypass negotiations by going through the UN, which is part of their delegitimization campaign,” he said. “Abbas has explicitly stated that he is trying to gain recognition to go to the International Criminal Court and bring charges against Israel. UNESCO is one vehicle of manipulation that will be used to gain control of Jewish and Christian sites and to deny Jews the historic claim to their homeland . This is a dangerous move that sets precedents and will have ramifications in other parts of the world as well.”
Hoenlein expressed the hope that student activists can relate to each of these developments to educate their peers about Israel, and he stressed that they can expect ample support from the broader pro-Israel community. With the help of organizations such as the Conference of Presidents and its member organizations (which include Hillel and many other groups committed to supporting pro-Israel student efforts), students can meet the anti-Israel challenges on campus.
“The good news is that it’s salvageable,” Hoenlein said about the lack of youth’s interest in Israel advocacy. “They want to know. We just need to find a way to reach them.”
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