Let pro-Israel students lead

Students may not operate as professionally as more established Israel advocacy organizations, but they offer a unique set of characteristics that are hard to find elsewhere

The Harvard Israel Conference organizing group (photo courtesy)
The Harvard Israel Conference organizing group (photo courtesy)

Last month, for the first time in history, a student-led Israel Conference took place at Harvard University. Over 900 people attended the conference, which was covered by over 14 news outlets in the US and Israel. Only a few weeks later, four soldiers came to Harvard to show the real face of the Israeli military. Of 14 attendees, only three were students. Prior to that, a delegation came to Harvard to portray the different faces of Israeli society. Of 11 students attendees, ten were either Jewish or Israeli.

The difference? The well-attended event was organized by students, while the others by the Israeli government or local Jewish organizations.

As we complete two years of graduate studies at Harvard, we reflect on the Israel-related activities we organized, including the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School trips to Israel, which attracted hundreds of students; the Annual Israel Wine charity events that attracted 190 students on average; and of course, the inaugural Harvard Israel Conference. Those events are not a exclusively a Harvard phenomenon. The Israel treks have become a tradition at MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Wharton and many other schools.

We know that students do not usually operate as professionally as more established organizations. Frankly, we made a lot of mistakes that more experienced groups would have avoided. However, students offer a unique set of characteristics that are hard to find elsewhere.

Why students?

So why are students best positioned to engage on Israel?

First, students have unparalleled passion and commitment. When we originally thought about the conference, people were skeptical; when we actually went through with it, everyone around us noticed: our professors complained that we were missing classes, our friends wondered why were skipping out on the best parties, and our partners and kids just waited for it to be over so life could return to normal.

While the commitment is mostly personal, there are external factors that contribute to it: Two years ago, in the summer of 2010, before matriculation, Shay was one of three Israeli HBS prospective students who were invited to the Israel Trek farewell party. By inviting us, the 2010 Israel Trek Leaders sent us a clear message: “Harvard Business School is fun, but remember: this is your duty now. You will do it next year and this is the standard we expect. Good luck, and we’d love to help you out!” Indeed, prospective students know that if they do not lead the Israel Trek, they will be unofficially shunned from the Israeli network at school.

The Israel Conference at Harvard planning group (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israel Conference at Harvard planning group (photo credit: Courtesy)

The same went for the Kennedy School: prospective students were invited to the farewell party in Israel, only to be greeted by the support of 60 students from over 15 different countries — and the realization that next year, the responsibility to share Israel would be on their shoulders.

Second, students are perfectly positioned to understand not only the interests of attendees, but also the new developments in their home country — given our daily engagement with both the school environment and Israel. We did not have to speculate about the Americans’ approach to conferences, because we had Americans in our organizing team. Similarly, while organizing the treks, we did not need recommendations about the trendiest clubs or the best restaurants in Tel Aviv – we removed all the guesswork and uncertainty.

Third, students’ personal connections are strong and extensive. It is easier for us to co-opt our classmates and personal network into attending than any external organization. Students’ networks are very diverse and interactive, on a daily basis. Our friends from all over the world show up to our events or sign up for the trip, simply because of personal connections and their eagerness to learn more about the culture of their classmates.

We cannot leave the campus ‘battleground’ to anti-Israel organization and students

Finally, students provide credibility. We can utilize the university brand and invite speakers in a way that external organizations simply cannot. This also provides credibility and access to the non-supportive groups. In the weeks before the conference, anti-Israel groups vandalized our posters and publicity materials. We responded by publishing three op-eds in the Harvard daily paper and The Times of Israel, among others. These articles were widely shared and commented upon on social networks, and some remained the most popular on the newspaper website for almost a week. It becomes harder to scream “hasbara” and question the motives when the organizers are the students themselves, rather than political organizations.

What can we do?

Students are given two responsibilities: First and foremost, they must remember that, whether they like it or not, they represent Israel and need to act appropriately. We believe that a passive-support approach is not enough. Students must take another step forward and think of more creative ways to share their thoughts and beliefs about our country. We cannot leave the campus “battleground” to anti-Israel organization and students.

Second, students need to communicate this message to the following generations of Israelis on campus. When students enter the university, there is a short period of time in which they follow advice and listen to their seniors. That is our chance to make sure they understand that this is their opportunity to create change and help our country – even from abroad.

The government can also actively participate. While the Israel Consulate and embassy are always welcomed, they should focus on providing the platform for students to flourish. This could include organizing activities for students, helping connect students to the right suppliers, speakers and guests, and sharing information about student-led events with the community — like the Boston Consulate has done this year.

When students enter the university, there is a short period of time in which they follow advice and listen to their seniors. That is our chance to make sure they understand this is their opportunity to create change

While we think that students should lead the events, we believe that supporters in the community can play an important role. A deeper level of involvement could be the creation of a social platform to promote ideas and discussion and motivate students to act. The best way would be to develop and shape the incoming students commitment; for example, by establishing a scholarship for Israelis, which would not only increase the number of Israeli students, but also enhance their dedication to the cause.

Our vision and hope is that there will be five Israel conferences, 25 wine functions and 50 Israel Treks led by Israeli students in just a couple of years on North American campuses. That would mean over 12,000 students engaged in the future of our country.

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Yaniv Rivlin is graduating this week from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as an E. David Fischman Scholar. He is a social entrepreneur, who co-founded and served as the VP of Comtribute. 

Shay Dvir is graduating the Harvard Business School MBA program this week and will be joining Amazon.com. Prior to HBS, Shay worked at Teva Pharmaceuticals Biogenerics Division in Israel.

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