Students hope Israel summit will spur campus advocacy

jerusalem | Concerned that Jewish student activists need to explore the complexities of Israel in person and on the ground — especially as Israeli-Palestinian fighting enters its fourth year and Israel remains unpopular on many campuses — organizers of the Global Jewish Student Leadership Summit hosted some 1,000 young adults during winter break.

“This gives them the ability to go back to their campuses and start every sentence with ‘I just came back from Israel,'” said Alon Friedman, the New York-based representative of Hamagshimim, the student chapter of Hadassah. “It gives them much more credibility.”

The students on the trip will be able to bring to campus a personal narrative that helps them explain the conflict to others, said the organizers, who included the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Union of Jewish Students and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Among the 300 Hillel students at the summit were some 80 U.S. student leaders on a special advocacy-training mission co-sponsored by the AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby.

Most mornings on their 12-day trip, they rose at dawn to read Israeli newspapers and hone their media-analysis skills.

The students traveled the length of the country meeting both Israelis and Palestinians and were coached on dealing with media. Video cameras were set up to record them as they practiced interviewing and public-speaking skills.

At the final morning of the student summit, wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts with their university logos, students clapped, cheered and took notes as attorney Alan Dershowitz took to the stage.

“I want you to change the world. I want you to be my co-counsel for Israel,” said Dershowitz, who recently published an advocacy guide, “The Case for Israel.” “I’ve never had a client more innocent or unjustly accused than Israel.”

Dershowitz reminded students that they had the freedom to defend or criticize the country, just as Israelis do, but urged them to stand up for Israel. He spoke of the trepidation among Jewish faculty and students to speak out in support of Israel, and urged summit participants to lead by example.

“It’s an uphill fight,” he told the crowd. “Go to it and rock the world.”

Students said the experience would help them be more effective advocates at home.

“We are not trying to be reactionary; we are trying to get information about the problems,” said Dalit Ballen, 21, who is studying for a joint degree at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Ballen, who was one of the students on the Israel advocacy mission, said taking on Israel advocacy feels like “an overwhelming feeling of responsibility” — especially since no peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians looms on the horizon.

Being in Israel, Ballen said, gives the students information for intelligent arguments in the often heated discussions at Columbia — especially with faculty members, many of whom have been especially outspoken against Israel.

Ballen’s friend Baylene Wacks, also 21 and from South Florida, said coming to Israel will boost her advocacy efforts at George Washington University, where she said student apathy, not anti-Israel sentiment, is the major problem.

“Now we can say, ‘Yes, I spoke to Knesset members and here is what is going on.’ I learned about the moral code used by the” Israeli army,” Wacks said.

The summit emphasized positive associations with Israel.

Blue and white T-shirts emblazoned with “I Love Israel. I Want Peace” on the front and “I am a Zionist” on the back were for sale. Students are planning to sell the shirts at their home campuses.

“We are trying to reclaim Zionism” to show that it’s not “a fanatical nationalistic movement,” Friedman said.