Jewish Advocate, Leah Burrows – Wide array of groups woo hearts and minds on campus
When a mock-up of the Israel security barrier popped up on Boston University’s campus last spring as part of Israel Apartheid Week, BU’s pro-Israel students knew what to do.
They whipped out their cell phones, hopped onto Facebook, logged into Gmail and got the message out: We need help.
In less than 48 hours, the students organized a counter-protest with more than 300 students from BU and neighboring schools, according to campus organizers. They chanted, sang songs and waved Israeli flags on BU’s main plaza.
The response was a stark contrast to the previous year when the inaugural Israel Apartheid Week, organized by the BU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, caught pro-Israel students off guard.
“I was really underwhelmed by student response in 2010,” said Rabbi Chananel Weiner, director of Aish Campus Boston, the college arm of the educational organization Aish HaTorah. “At that time, there was not nearly enough of vocal outcry from students to [Israel Apartheid Week].”
Hasbara Fellows from Northeastern University in Israel. From left: David Sandler, Marlena Lurie, Andy Weiss and Ethan Rauf Hasbara Fellows from Northeastern University in Israel. From left: David Sandler, Marlena Lurie, Andy Weiss and Ethan Rauf Over the next six months, Weiner redoubled his efforts to recruit students for Aish’s Hasbara Fellowships, which send college students to Israel for two weeks of advocacy training and supplies funds and resources for campus advocacy on their return.
But Hasbara isn’t the only organization working closely with students on campus – not by a long shot.
More than a dozen organizations in New England bolster college efforts, including AIPAC, J Street, CAMERA, The David Pro- ject and Stand with Us. Organizations such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Anti- Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee also support on-campus student groups.
These organizations pour thousands of dollars into campuses through grants, training programs and resources such as pamphlets, speakers and web videos. For example, CJP spent $ 2.1 million on its Birthright Initiative and campus follow-up last year.
Here are just a few examples of events and campaigns organized by pro-Israel campus groups since the beginning of September:
Hillel Neuer, the executive director of the watchdog group UN Watch, spoke at Tufts and MIT.
Pro-Israel leaders from Tufts and Boston University lobbied Senator Scott Brown’s office in support of tougher sanctions on Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Boston University Students for Israel hosted an event with international relations professor William Keylor leading up to the UN General Assembly.
The Brandeis Zionist Alliance organized a free Hookah Night on campus, attended by hundreds of students.
“ Ten years ago, students were pulling their hair trying to find resources to advocate for Israel,” said Elliot Mathias, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships. “Now we’re in a great situation; now there are a tremendous amount of resources.”
Last December, Weiner took Hasbara’s first all-New England contingent of fellows to Israel – more than 30 students from local colleges.
They met with Israel Defense Forces soldiers, visited the West Bank and learned how to organize pro- Israel campaigns.
When they returned, the students held more than 100 programs on their campuses, Weiner said, ranging from film screenings to Israeli food parties to hosting speakers such as Shai Bazak, the consul general of Israel to New England.
The students also learned what to do when faced with anti-Israel rhetoric, said Ethan Rauf, of Northeastern. “ Before, I wasn’t sure how to answer all of those allegations against Israel,” Tesler said. “On the [Hasbara] trip, we learned how to show those statements were wrong. We could say, ‘No, I was there, and this is what I saw.’”
Nationwide, Hasbara Fellowships have grown from about 30 students representing 15 universities in 2001 to about 250 students hailing from about 80 universities in 2011.
Hasbara tracks how involved their fellows become in pro-Israel activism after completing the training in Israel.
In 2009, 159 students participated in the Hasbara fellowship program. Of those 159, 101 students described themselves as minimally involved in campus advocacy before going on the program – meaning they had not assumed leadership roles in their Israel groups or taken personal initiatives.
After the program, 80 percent of those students became more active – joining the board of their Israel groups, organizing campaigns or events, and writing op-eds.
CJP has similar figures for students who participate in the Birthright Initiative to Israel. About 80 percent of local students who take part in CJP’s Birthright Initiative became more involved on campus, participating in at least three Jewish or Israel-related events or classes in a semester.
“If you want the Jewish kids on campus to be Israel activists, they have to know something about Israel,” said Barry Shrage, president of CJP. “They have positive feelings about being Jewish and positive feelings about Israel.”
CJP employs 11 full-time campus coordinators to recruit students for Birthright and keep them involved once they return.
Last year, CJP sent 1,000 students from 70 area colleges on Birthright. Universities like Harvard and Northeastern, which a few years ago only sent about a dozen students on Birthright, are now sending up to 80 students a year, said Matt Lebovic, senior campus associate at CJP’s Israel Campus Roundtable.
Students can also apply for fellowship programs at Stand with Us, an Israel educational organization, and The David Project. Numerous other organizations offer internships or leadership development programs, such as AIPAC.
Many of these organizations that sponsor events and work on campus have overlapping priorities. CJP’s Israel Campus Roundtable is responsible for keeping them from stepping on each other’s toes, according to Lebovic.
The roundtable is an umbrella organization for professional Israel activists – not students – from 16 organizations. It convenes monthly to discuss upcoming programs, strategies and grant offerings.
With so many options, how do students keep track of the maze of organizations?
“ Students are smart and they’ve figured out how to get the best resources and tools that are out there,” Mathias said. “A student can say, ‘I want to bring a speaker to campus’ and then call The David Project and get 50 percent funding, then call Stand With Us and get 50 percent funding.”
“It’s about the message not where it comes from,” said Matt Goldberg, vice president of BU Students for Israel and a Stand with Us Emerson Fellow.
Despite the competition for funding, it’s not difficult to woo donors, Mathias said, because people understand the importance of campuses in the fight for Israel.
“On campus, you have the chance to make a real impact,” he said. “Once people hit a certain age, they will not change their minds, but students are still open minded.”
Bazak, the consul general, put it more starkly at a networking event at his Brookline apartment, which drew more than 40 student leaders from pro-Israel groups as far away as Brown University and UMass-Amherst.
In a short speech, Bazak summed up the importance of the students’ efforts:
“In Israel, we have two lines of defense against attack: the Israel Defense Force and you.”