WASHINGTON — Think North American campus activism for Israel and chances are you won’t think of a Hispanic Catholic organizing pro-Israel events.
Or, of an African American Catholic at a historically black college telling not just her fellow students, but also a Jewish youth group, why she supports Israel.
Yet, Stanley Gonzalez-Martinez and Alexis Crews are among thousands of non-Jewish students at North American colleges and universities who wear their love for Israel on their sleeves.
‘Non-Jewish students vastly outnumber the number of Jewish activists motivated to support Israel’
That shouldn’t be a surprise, says Stephen Kuperberg, the Israel on Campus Coalition’s executive director. “Non-Jewish students vastly outnumber the number of Jewish activists motivated to support Israel,” he says.
“On campus, just as it is in the rest of the United States, if the only support Israel has comes from Jews, we would be in very bad shape.”
Christians United for Israel has 98 campus chapters — created at the behest of students, CUFI’s executive director, David Brog, says. “I didn’t anticipate doing a campus program,” he says. “We started getting approached by campus Christians, telling us, ‘Israel is really under assault; no one is defending Israel… They wanted our help.”
Five hundred students attended last summer’s CUFI Washington Summit, Brog says. (While the majority of students are evangelical, he says, there is more Christian denominational diversity among the students than among adults affiliated with CUFI.) The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, meanwhile, drew more than 1,200 students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to its policy conference last year and expects more than 1,600 at next month’s conference. J Street drew about 500 students, mostly Jewish, to its conference last year.
The motivations for Christians are many — for some, like Sarah Spillar, it starts with a religious foundation and grows from there to pragmatic reasons. For others, like Gonzalez-Martinez, it’s a byproduct of forming friendships with Jews and seeing the state’s importance to them.
‘Organically on campus, students connect to one another, and we encourage students to be intentional about how they reach out and build relationships to other student leaders’
That’s exactly what professionals from pro-Israel campus groups are trying to encourage. “Organically on campus, students connect to one another, and we encourage students to be intentional about how they reach out and build relationships to other student leaders,” Kuperberg says.
A white paper issued by the David Project earlier this month speaks to building relationships. “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges” says that Israel advocacy should focus on building strategic alliances at various levels, not just reacting to negative events.
Sometimes those alliances happen without intentional effort. For sophomore Gonzalez-Menendez, Israel was just a blip on the map when he was growing up in a Hispanic community in San Diego, California. “It really was a blank slate about Israel.”
“I knew about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says, but that was about it.
Then he went to George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he gravitated toward Jewish friends, and ended up joining the historically Jewish Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.
Through his fraternity brothers, many of them who are also active in the campus Hillel and have a strong connection to Israel, Gonzalez-Menendez learned about the Jewish state. “Israel went from something I never really knew about to something that always comes up,” the 19-year-old international affairs major says. “It was really cool how it’s such a modern state.”
Last semester, he helped organize the campus Hillel’s Talk Israel event, which featured speakers throughout the day. Literature about Israel was also on hand.
‘People don’t feel like I’m Jewish and so automatically have allegiance to Israel. People see it as genuine’
When it comes to Israel advocacy, Gonzalez-Menendez believes he has an advantage over Jewish students. “People don’t feel like I’m Jewish and so automatically have allegiance to Israel. People see it as genuine,” he says.
Although he hasn’t yet visited Israel, he hopes to do so this summer and has applied to a J Street U program.
A senior at the evangelical Christian Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Sarah Spiller has already visited Israel and “can’t wait to go back.”
“It was truly breathtaking. It exceeded my expectations,” says Spillar, 20, president of her campus Stand With Israel club. “Your breath is taken away, you can really feel the presence of the Lord, how has God has blessed the nation, whether through their agriculture or hi-tech, how they have survived so many attacks.”
As a Christian, she says, “I have spiritual reasons to support Israel, but it goes beyond that. … The nation of Israel is a huge support to the United States through military intelligence; through training; through the support they show us when we’re attacked. … Israel is leading the world in technology and medical innovations that are not just helping their country, but helping the world.”
As a freshman, she attended CUFI’s Washington Summit, and has been involved in lobbying her member of Congress, US Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), on issues related to Israel.
Spillar has also helped organized Liberty’s Israel Emphasis Week, which highlights various aspects of Israel, including its economy and advancements in science and medicine. CUFI founder Pastor John Hagee gave the keynote last year; she’s hoping that Israel Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren will address this year’s event, in April.
‘When they’re facing threats from almost every surrounding nation, why wouldn’t I help?’
For Crews, Israel advocacy stems in part from being a minority herself. “When they’re facing threats from almost every surrounding nation, why wouldn’t I help? Why wouldn’t I feel inclined as a minority?” says Crews, 21, a senior at the historically black Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. “Our people, on two very different levels, experienced horrific tragedy.”
She grew up in New York City, and although she attended Catholic parochial schools, she had numerous Jewish friends. “I knew that Israel was their birthright, that the Jewish people saw Israel as the place that God had given them,” she says, but Israel advocacy didn’t come until she was in college.
That’s when she got involved with the campus Vanguard Leadership Group, which has ties to AIPAC. As a sophomore, she attended AIPAC’s policy conference. “I was blown away,” she says, specifically recalling the keynote by Tony Blair, then the European Union president. That a world leader like Blair would talk so passionately about the US-Israel relationship sparked her own passion, says Crews, who shortly before being interviewed had addressed a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization gathering.
“When you have a passion,” she says, “people can see that you’re authentic.”
Hashem Hamdy’s passion led to a job with Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel campus program that is spearheaded by Aish International and brings student leaders to Israel. The son of a Muslim father and Christian mother, Hamdy identifies as Muslim and is the rare non-Jew who to become a Hasbara Fellow. Since his December graduation from Carleton University in Ottawa, he has been the Eastern Canada regional coordinator for Hasbara Fellowships.
He describes his university as one with a “very, very strong tradition of radical politics.” He was disturbed that discussions about Israel devolved into questioning Israel’s legitimacy.
“A lot of it was slander,” and the environment was hostile, Hamdy, 22, says, with Jewish students physically threatened. “There was an unacceptable campus environment when it comes to this issue and I had to work to change that.”
Acknowledging that a Muslim supporting Israel raises eyebrows, Hamdy says he considers himself Muslim and Western. Ticking off such things as human rights, equality for women and the Israeli government’s recognition of the gay community, he says, “Israel embodies those values which I consider to be central to the Western identity and civilization.”