AIPAC energizes students to fight back on campus

WASHINGTON– The scene was like a full-throttle rock concert, with students squeezed wall-to-wall, thumping, jumping and screaming in heady anticipation.

The rock idol was Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some 650 students — including 18 from U.C. Berkeley — rushed the corridors of the hotel at this week's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for the chance to greet Israel's former prime minister.

Waving Israeli flags and singing a medley of Hebrew songs that morphed into punchy chants of "Bi-bi," the mood was electric.

Weathering a storm of anti-Israel rhetoric on campus that has surged during Israel's latest military incursions, students gathered here for strategy and support.

While campus anti-Israel activity increased after Israel launched Operation Protective Wall in late March, students agree that Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian areas won't end the protests.

"It's going to have zero effect," predicted Randy Barnes, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee at U.C. Berkeley, the scene of some of the worst anti-Israel activity of any campus.

It's not "any particular policy of the Israeli government" that people are protesting. "It's the existence of the Israeli government."

Several anti-Semitic incidents have struck Berkeley over the course of the intifada, including the throwing of a cinder block through Hillel's glass doors a few weeks ago and intimidation of Jewish students leaving Yom Kippur services.

But Barnes said Berkeley's pro-Israel group, which sent an 18-student delegation to the conference, will continue "positive, pro-active programming," including hosting speakers such as Jonathan Kessler, editor of Middle East Insight; throwing an Israel Independence Day party on campus; holding bonfire socials for group support; and sitting at a table with an Israeli flag for three hours each day.

Ultimately, he said, the efforts of the Arab students — who recently took over a school building for the second time in as many years — are counterproductive. While the pro-Israel students preach peace and coexistence, the anti-Israel groups spew anger and hate, he said.

Janelle Noble, a non-Jewish, pro-Israel activist at the University of San Francisco, agreed that the Palestinian activists' anger prevents them from giving a coherent message.

Jewish groups should continue educational programming, Noble said. For her part, she'll continue writing editorials in her college newspaper and citing the congressional support she heard at the conference.

"Our focus should not be on giving history lessons," said Noam Kutler, a sophomore at Rutgers University.

It would be nice to be able to "have debates with every single Palestinian supporter," but that's not the best use of resources, he said. Instead, he said, pro-Israel activists should stay on a single message, just as the Palestinians do.

Noah Palmer-Licht, a sophomore at North Carolina State, said he had been struggling to gain pro-Israel ground on campus, but the conference had given him "a whole other world of support," he said.

Palmer-Licht received suggestions on how to combat professors involved in anti-Israel activity and said he will implement his plan — asking religion and history professors to introduce class dialogue — when he returns to school.

Michael Jankelowitz, director of Campus Israel Affairs, said the Israeli-Palestinian crisis may be building the most pro-Israel student generation ever. Jankelowitz runs a program established at the start of the year for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Hillel and AIPAC have been deeply involved in helping students fight the battle on campus. With its partner agencies, Hillel is launching an ad campaign in campus newspapers, mobilizing students to buy and promote Israeli products — and raising money to buy an ambulance for Magen David Adom, the Israeli relief group.

AIPAC is tripling its student budget to add staff and resources to the effort.

Local federations, JCCs and Israeli consulates also are lending a hand, along with organizations like Hadassah's Hamagshimim and, now, the Caravan for Democracy, a campus speakers program linking America and Israel.

AIPAC officials noted that in the face of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, these students remain strong, even defiant, in standing by Israel, pointing to panel discussions, demonstrations and workshops on activism and letter-writing that help them make Israel's case.

But it isn't easy, said students, who feel at a disadvantage against a unified Palestinian front that spreads propaganda rather than fact.

And it isn't easy to unite Jewish students when their opinions range across the political spectrum and their confusion about the issue sometimes yields to apathy.

But the activists said they were leaving the AIPAC conference with an arsenal of skills, knowledge and determination to fight the good fight.