A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Israel advocacy is the goal of college clubs across the country

 Adam Palmer 
By Adam Palmer

Pro-Israel groups on college campuses approach Israel advocacy from many different perspectives.

For Deena Moskowitz, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U.), “Israel advocacy means falafel.” As president of Wash U Students for Israel (WSI), she puts this support for Israel’s culture into practice. At IFest, a WSI-sponsored celebration of Israel, students enjoyed a drum circle, basic lessons in the Israeli martial art of krav maga, and, of course, enough free falafel for 800 people.

“At the college level, you have a lot of people from different areas of the U.S. and the world,” Moskowitz said. “Some of them have never heard about Israel.”

That’s why WSI strives not only to promote Israel, but also to educate students about the country, she says.

Moskowitz said there is little organized opposition to Israel at Wash U. The situation is different for Steven Slivnick, president of IlliniPAC at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who also served as a Lewis Summer Intern with JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council in 2007. On his campus, Palestinian activists have gone so far as to dress as Israeli soldiers and act out a scene in which they beat a ‘Palestinian.’

Slivnick recognizes that such demonstrations can damage Israel’s image, but he stresses that IlliniPAC is “positive and pro-active, not negative and reactionary.”

The group brings in speakers, sponsors cultural events, and publishes a weekly newsletter, “Newsrael,” regardless of anti-Israel activity on campus. At the same time, “We try to defend Israel when it needs defending,” Slivnick says.

Nathalie Gorman, a second year at the University of Chicago and president of Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) explains this apparent contradiction by noting that college is a place for academic discussion.

“A one-sided academic discussion is no academic discussion at all,” she said.

So while members of the CFI board reject event ideas that seem to be reactionary, they also recognize that CFI must present its side of a debate whenever challenged, she said.

 Gorman stressed that Israel advocacy is not only about promoting Israel in the U.S., but also means being involved in Israeli politics and “working for change in Israel.”

An organization at Columbia University takes Gorman’s interpretation of Israel advocacy several steps further.

The organization, called Garin Lavi, stages small events and has built a support network for students who plan not only to change Israel, but to move there. Alexandra Polsky, co-president of Garin Lavi, says that four or five students are certain of their plans to make aliyah, and about fifteen are strongly considering the move.

In addition to connecting students with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps Jews make aliyah, Garin Lavi provides them with a forum where they can discuss their concerns. Some common topics include where to live in Israel, which American degrees impress Israeli employers, and general financial issues.

Polsky says that being a member of Garin Lavi gives her a special perspective on Israel advocacy.

“I think a criticism that we have of a lot of Israel advocacy is that they just try to paint Israel as a good picture and gloss over things that I don’t think are okay,” she said. “Anti-Israel people see right through that, and it only weakens us.”

Polsky said she understands that pro-Israel students may be afraid of criticizing Israel’s policy because they do not want to get pushed into the same camp as anti-Israel students. But Polsky is an American who plans to make aliyah.

“I can somehow be more critical of Israel, and it doesn’t make it seem like I don’t think Israel should exist,” she said. “I love the country with my whole heart. I think it’s beautiful, the culture’s incredible. It allows me to be the type of Jew I want to be.”

Posted: 10/18/2007 05:38:22 AM

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