Students convene at CAMERA advocacy conference

Almost 40 students from dozens of schools convened in Boston for CAMERA’s Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference.

CAMERA 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Gilead Ini)
(photo credit: Courtesy Gilead Ini)
They came from all over the US and Canada: Jews and non-Jews, those who had just been to Israel for the first time on Birthright trips, Israelis and those who have yet to make it to Israel. In a few weeks their school year will begin and these “defenders of Israel” will face hostility and formidable challenges as they attempt to uphold what is moral. They will work tirelessly to persuade others to acknowledge the good in a nation that has been unfairly vilified and ostracized by so many.
Almost 40 students from dozens of schools convened in Boston for CAMERA’s Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference. The conference took place August 19 to August 21 at the Boston University Hillel. It focused on combating anti-Israel campaigns and promoting accurate news coverage and commentary about Israel and the Middle East on campus.
From a student in Texas who was fired from her position as a news reporter for the school paper because of her support for Israel, to students in California who endured professors spewing steady doses of anti-Israel rhetoric, just about everyone had a moving story that highlighted the importance of the conference. But now students were acquiring the tools to counter this and gaining a supportive community to give them the fortitude to do it. As participant Yoni Kaplan said, “no longer do any of us feel alone in the fight.”
The strength of these conferences is that “it brings together the most passionate, most talented, and most dedicated proponents from around the continent and forges them into a network,” as Mr. Kaplan, president of a CAMERA Campus Activist Project (CCAP)-supported pro-Israel organization at Tulane University put it.
Rita Usher, who attends a historically black college in Alabama, explained, “I knew that Israel was important to me... I was told that this wasn’t my fight, that the importance of Israel and its well-being should be irrelevant to me, all because of the color of my skin. After the conference I realized that the color of my skin did not matter. I felt more empowered to do what is right, and that is to support a nation in its quest to safety and truth.”
It was striking to hear from students about how alone they felt on campus in a sea of anti-Israel sentiment. Indeed it brought back my own memories of starting college during the height of the second intifada, overwhelmed by an anti-Israel newspaper, anti- Israel professors and anti- Israel student groups. This was years before CAMERA had established its Campus Fellows and CCAP programs – providing constant support, education, funding and resources for these Israel groups.
Unfortunately, what I faced on campus now appears tame relative to the actions of anti-Israel groups that have evolved to become far more organized, and far more extreme. Thankfully, now there are resources to help the next generation of pro-Israel activists.
On the first day of the conference, Navid Elie, a student from California, expressed shock, telling the room that he had no idea that he had signed up for something that intense. By the end of the conference, he approached us with a smile on his face, exuberant about how much he had learned. He confidently declared, “Now I feel ready.”
From CAMERA’s Christian Media Analyst Dexter Van Zile we heard an especially stirring story about how he came to defend Israel, and left his congregation after it became a beacon for anti- Israelism. Simmons College professor Dr. Richard Cravatts gave a powerful lecture regarding the challenges of Israel activism on campus. Sharon Singer, the director of public affairs and social media at the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, spoke about how to restore factual portrayals of Israel in university settings.
Students discussed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, took part in writing and role-playing workshops, and covered event-planning strategies. After learning about anti- Israel arguments, in a rapidfire session, students were given 30 seconds to respond to common slurs such as that Israel is an apartheid state.
The goal was relevancy. Rena Nasar of Baruch College, describing the conference, said, “I felt that this conference really got down to the core issues pro-Israel students face every day.”
It is on the campus front that some of the most important work is being done to defend Israel against falsehoods and challenges to its legitimacy. These students feel besieged at their universities. This fall, hundreds of thousands of students will be exposed to the conflict for the very first time, tens of thousands will contemplate going to Birthright or have just gone on their first trip to Israel.
Other experienced pro-Israel activists will be returning to campus. Learning in depth about the conflict in such conferences can be an invaluable experience for students, some of which had never spoken up or defended Israel before. Now they can help restore balance to their school papers, lecture halls and conversations among their peers.
The writer is the Campus Coordinator at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). CAMERA, now in its 30th anniversary year, is the premier Israel and Middle East news media monitor. The nonpartisan organization has 65,000 members in more than 12 countries, with websites in English, Hebrew and Spanish.