The Human Spirit: Letting Israel make an impression

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Among the welcome plethora of tourists who filled our hotels, archeology sites, jewelry shops and restaurants in recent weeks were hundreds of university students who decided to hone their Zionism instead of deepening their tans on a beach in Florida. I had the pleasure of engaging several groups of them in discussion. The first group was from Aish Hatorah's Hasbara Fellowships, a program that has brought several thousand American and Canadian college students, not necessarily religiously observant, to Israel for intensive missions in Israel advocacy. I have reservations about the term hasbara, derived from the Hebrew word "explain." I've always found that those who want to explain something to me instead of telling it elicit my skepticism. But quibbling aside, I'm impressed by these young adults who ignore jet lag to listen to long lectures about contemporary Israel. They need to quickly soak up enough information and inspiration to stand up resolutely for the Jewish state before anti-Israel mobs. If you've seen films of campus confrontations, you know how daunting this can be. But do we still need such assertive spokespersons for our cause? In Israel, we've cautiously begun to speak of the intifada in the past tense, despite the missile barrages and continued terrorism. According to the students, the vitriolic conflict between Jews and Muslims rages unabated on their campuses. Nor has our unique willingness to send our own army to remove our own people from our own houses abated the loathing for the Jewish state among radical Islamic groups. Some of the college students are veterans of heated campus battles over whether their universities should allow Palestinian students to erect mock security fences and checkpoints on campus. They're ready, for example, to refute the lies of the malicious film Jenin, Jenin that's still wending its way across North American campuses. But others, who might have been in ninth grade while the military and media were battling over Jenin in April 2002, aren't sure what happened there. Most students do their research on the Internet. Google "Jenin massacre" on the Web and you won't just get the debunking of the massacre myth, you'll get the myth. For instance, the very first reference presents an April 18, 2002, BBC News report stating: "A British forensic expert who has gained access to the West Bank city of Jenin says evidence points to a massacre by Israeli forces." It goes on to say: "Prof. Derrick Pounder, who is part of an Amnesty International team granted access to Jenin, said he has seen bodies lying in the streets and received eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths." Thankfully, pro-Israel organizations which are pursuing advocacy missions are correct in taking the long view; presenting Israel's case is an ongoing challenge, and needs to be invested in, no matter how long the conflict continues. After all, every four years you have an entirely new student body on campus. ANOTHER GROUP I met came to Israel with the Hillel Foundation's Student Leadership Winter Israel Mission. You may have noticed their tour buses with the intriguing signs: "Jewish Pluralism and Learning," "Business and Technology," "Hillel-AIPAC Advanced Advocacy" and "Tzedek," the Social Justice group. The campus Hillel Foundations under the inspired leadership of Richard Joel (now Yeshiva University's president) and Avraham Infeld (Hillel's current president) are key providers for birthright israel, the excellent ongoing program that encourages students to take their first-ever organized trip to Israel for free. Birthright israel is the introductory course. The Student Leadership Mission, for which participants each pay $500, requires prior Israel experience, and the program takes on complex and even difficult Israel issues. The students I met were on the Social Justice track geared, according to the Web site advertisement, "to committed leaders on campuses who are dedicated to community service and activism," and explores "the connection between social justice and Judaism." They're a mix of religiously observant and less observant young people. Several of the participants had spent a year studying in Israel, and about half spoke Hebrew. They were interested in civil rights, women's rights and religious issues. In addition to hearing lectures about challenging social issues, they rolled up their sleeves and did volunteer work with Ethiopian immigrants, Beduin children and the children of foreign workers. They created day camps, painted houses and did home repairs. When I asked how many were considering aliya, at least a third of the hands flew up. Why do such highly identified young people even need subsidized trips? Simply put, because they are the future leadership of the Jewish people. They're intelligent, energetic, idealistic and Jewishly educated. They're the same top students and top leaders whom every hi-tech firm, law office and communal organization will soon be courting. Jewish commitment notwithstanding, it's easy to be distracted along the way. When new opportunities to deepen their affiliation and explore their interests are made easier, chances are greater that these young people will invest their talent and passion within the Jewish world. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met this week with representatives of Masa, the new effort to get Diaspora youth to come to Israel on long-term programs. Of course, nothing compares with a year in Israel to build Jewish identity and forge bonds with the Jewish state. But we need more creative short-term programs, too. The Jewish world has sufficient funds for both. In fact, those really concerned with Jewish continuity can't afford not to support them.