African-American students lend a hand at IDF base

"We're a black college - we've never seen anything like this."

IDF tank 224.88 (photo credit: IDF )
IDF tank 224.88
(photo credit: IDF )
Some would call it an unusual place for students from an historically African-American university to find themselves over their winter break. But seven students from Alabama State University are busy this week experiencing Israel and the IDF first-hand through a week of volunteering on the Tel Hashomer medical base. "They're young! They're kids, just like us, and they do the exact same stuff we do," said Duncan Kirkwood, Alabama State University's student government president, referring to the soldiers he had met on the base. For all seven, it is their first trip to Israel. But Kirkwood has taken an active role at ASU, turning the Montgomery, Alabama campus into a center of pro-Israel support and education over the last year, culminating in a week-long visit to Israel in December. Through his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Kirkwood came into contact with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2007, when he and fellow student government executive board members were invited to AIPAC's policy conference in Washington, DC. ASU's participation at the conference is in line with AIPAC's attempt to increase the numbers of Christian and African-American delegates. "We learned about the pro-Israel movement in the US really for the first time," said Kirkwood of the conference. In addition to making friends at AIPAC, Kirkwood's attendance sparked a pro-Israel sentiment that he wanted to bring back to campus. Upon returning to ASU in fall 2007 as student government president, Kirkwood aggressively fueled support for Israel and American-Israeli relations through Israel Fest - an on-campus speech competition whose topic was the importance of American-Israeli relations - and a dinner with campus leaders hosted by AIPAC. "We're a black college - we've never seen anything like this," said Kirkwood. When fellow students would ask why he was so supportive of Israel, he employed AIPAC's theory of "retell engagement," teaching them what he had learned at the AIPAC conferences about why strong ties to Israel are good for America. "Of course I support the Jewish [state's] right to exist, but more so they are our best and only friends, without question," Kirkwood said. "They're the number two army in the world. We need to be down with them!" Kirkwood continued to bring AIPAC to ASU while simultaneously collaborating on their projects, teaching a session for their Israel Amplified conference in Florida about engaging minorities in the workplace. "AIPAC brought it home for a lot of students that they aren't just about 'Israel is great, Israel is great,' but that a connection with them is a connection with Washington," said Kirkwood. "That's the dream for a lot of us, to know that not only certain people can get involved in Washington. They are extending that opportunity to us." In October, Kirkwood decided that he wanted to go to Israel in December. He began lobbying, "and lobbying hard," to the student senate to approve. AIPAC had made an agreement with him: Pay for your travel to Israel, and they would handle the rest. Kirkwood's efforts paid off, and the student senate approved the roughly $14,000 needed to cover the cost of seven students traveling to Israel. Together with the vice president and secretary of the student government, plus four other students who applied to come through resumes and letters of intent, Kirkwood arrived in Tel Aviv on December 16. Their trip kicked off with a night in Tel Aviv and an two-day tour of Jerusalem, facilitated through the Jewish Agency's Israel Experience. "Jerusalem was amazing. We walked in the Kotel Tunnels, where Jesus walked, and we were so in awe we had to stop the tour to just take it in," said Kirkwood. Since Sunday the group has been at Tel Hashomer, "each of us with different duties - some in the warehouse, some in the kitchen, some prepping medical kits," and hearing speakers telling about their experiences as nurses in the War of Independence and what it is like to leave high school and go through the draft process. "We're even learning a little Hebrew," said Kirkwood. "I learned 'shalom,' and 'sababa.' The environment is awesome." Kirkwood and his friends have been teaching the Israelis dances and listening to popular American music, and have realized how similar they all are. Though Kirkwood will graduate in May, the passion for Israel will remain strong at Alabama State. He plans to share his pictures and stories at AIPAC council meetings and tell others how they can get involved at the annual Founders Day convocation in February. Current Vice President Jamilia Colquitt will step into his shoes next year and plan return trips to Israel. "I can't wait to go back, and brag to everyone at the AIPAC winter conference in January, who had been all 'Birthright this' and 'Birthright that,'" said Kirkwood. "I've been here now."