Reservists called up for next Hamas frontline — US campuses

How are the Jewish Agency and Hillel International dealing with the heightened anti-Israel sentiment at North American universities?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Illustrative image of Jewish students at Texas A&M (courtesy)
Illustrative image of Jewish students at Texas A&M (courtesy)

The day before Rosh Hashanah, students at universities across America will have the opportunity to ring in the Jewish new year en masse. Instead of sounding the shofar, however, participants are much more likely to use megaphones in resounding choruses of “Free Palestine.”

Leading anti-Zionist organization American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) has called for massive protests on campuses to mark September 23 as the International Day of Action. Its stated goal: to “make Free Palestine and Ending the Siege on Gaza part of campus education by holding teach-ins, rallies, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and push for BDS activities.”

According to the event’s Facebook page, there are already organizers at work at colleges including Berkeley, SFSU and UCSF in California, Rutgers in New Jersey, University of Texas at Austin and Purdue in Indiana.

So far several hundred have indicated they’ll attend to rally against the recent “Summer of Fire” in which “Israel launched an unparalleled brutal assault against the Palestinians of Gaza.”

On Facebook the potential protesters are asked to “Build the Movement on Your Campus! Wear the Palestinian Kuffiyeh and make it a visible symbol on campus!” One eager Pittsburgh student responded, “Have kuffiyeh will stand for Palestine next Tuesday on my campus. The Proud. The Few. The Boycotters. ‪#‎FreePalestine‬ ‪#‎BDS‬ ‪#‎AcademicFreedom.”‬

After a summer of large-scale anti-Israel demonstrations, so what? Isn’t AMP just another pro-Palestinian group holding its signs, waving its flags? Yes and no.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish community’s watchdog organization for anti-Semitism and civil liberties abuses, AMP can be traced directly back to Hamas through the now defunct Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP). (The IAP, among other things, printed and distributed Hamas literature calling for a global jihad against Jews.)

So as universities begin the academic year, after a summer in which Israel was represented in mainstream media as the bully Goliath, with Hamas as underdog David, Jewish professionals anticipate that students’ return to campus will be fraught with anti-Israel sentiment.

While the ceasefire is holding in Gaza, as in the aftermath of previous wars, the frontline has shifted to college campuses.

Call in the troops

It was during the Second Intifada that Jewish Agency for Israel head Natan Sharansky, then deputy prime minister, realized how dire the situation on campuses was for Israel — and that the country’s most virulent critics were often Jews.

After visiting dozens of colleges throughout North America, he reported back to prime minister Ariel Sharon that liberal Jews had said that with all the fallout from the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in the Holy Land, they would have preferred life without a Jewish state.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky watches over the Old City of Jerusalem (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: Oren Fixler/Flash90)

“I said to Sharon — the most important battleground for the future of the Jewish people is campuses,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel last week.

And so during Operation Protective Edge, Sharansky and his team worked to come up with a plan to bolster their Israel engagement efforts on North American campuses.

“During the war, when it was clear already that one battle would finish and immediately the other would start on the campuses, we began discussing how we can strengthen and affect the campus atmosphere,” said Sharansky.

At the height of this summer’s Gaza conflict, JAFI had already begun training its 2014 cohort of 66 campus Israel Fellows, which are based out of Hillel Houses on 111 campuses throughout North America (some fellows have a presence on multiple campuses).

All the fellows have completed army service and university study and sign on for up to two years on campuses where they aim to “empower student leadership and create Israel-engaged campuses.”

Using this summer’s massive call-up of IDF reserves as a model, JAFI began to conscript its “reservists” and, with emergency funding from Jewish Federations of North America, pressed 20 former Israel Fellows back into its ranks. The reservists themselves are happy to serve and have taken off between two weeks and a month from their “civilian lives” to return to campuses in North America.

The reservists write a blog where they share their experiences, describing intensive strategic operations and offer their personal reflections.

Students from the University of New Mexico Hillel with Israel Fellow reservist Oded Gvaram. (courtesy)
Students from the University of New Mexico Hillel with Israel Fellow reservist Oded Gvaram. (courtesy)

Yael Gertel is currently based in Pennsylvania at the Muhlenberg College Hillel after spending two years as the University of Maryland’s Hillel Israel Fellow. “This past summer I’ve been waiting for the call to ask me to come for miluim — reserve duty. I never thought, though, that I would be called for reserve duty abroad, as a veteran Israel Fellow,” wrote Gertel in a blog post.

“Today, two weeks after the call from the JAFI, I am sitting in this beautiful campus of Muhlenberg and trying to summarize three days of back to back meetings with some great Mules. Although my time here is very short, I’m trying to learn as much as possible about the community and how to improve its connection to Israel — and what better way to do it by meeting as many students as possible,” wrote Gertel.

From Indiana University in Bloomington Hillel, Hadar Raveh wrote: “When you know you only have two weeks to ‘make a difference,’ things are going fast! In a week you get to know all the active pro-Israel students, you speak at numerous events, you meet with students for a casual and informal conversation about their lives and Israel, and you are experiencing campus life through the eyes of the students, who are happy to show you around!”

Indiana University in Bloomington students at the Hillel House greet their temporary Israel Fellow reservist in September 2014. (courtesy)
Indiana University in Bloomington students at the Hillel House greet their temporary Israel Fellow reservist in September 2014. (courtesy)

The cultural exchange for Shira Prigat at Texas A&M included attending her first American football game.

But it’s hardly all fun and games for her and the other reservists, rather meetings… and more meetings.

“Texas A&M has approximately 500 Jewish students so there are two main challenges – one finding them and engage them. Two, educate the non-Jews about Israel. And the latter should be address with the new ASSI – Aggies Students Supporting Israel group, established by Hillel,” wrote Prigat.

A new one-stop Israel shop at Hillel International

The Israel Fellows program is the poster child for a successful JAFI-Hillel partnership on campuses. Recently this cooperation was given much more permanence and prominence with the establishment of a separate Israel Education and Engagement department under Hillel vice president Shelley Kedar.

This emphasis on Israel engagement is a direct about-face from Hillel International’s stance during the Second Intifada, said Sharansky.

“[During the Second Intifada] Hillel was doubtful whether it would be good for them to have Israel activity. Today we are partners and practically every Hillel wants an Israel Fellow because they have realized we cannot keep people Jewish without a strong connection to Israel,” said Sharansky.

New Hillel vice president of Israel education and engagement Shelley Kedar (courtesy)
New Hillel vice president of Israel education and engagement Shelley Kedar (courtesy)

Kedar is officially also the head of the Israel Fellows program and is employed by both Hillel and the Jewish Agency in a shared position.

She audibly shrugged when asked how it is to have two masters. “Partnership happens in the Jewish world every once in the while,” Kedar said wryly.

“The vision and mission of the Jewish Agency and Hillel in securing the Jewish future worldwide in terms of Israel engagement presents no conflict, so there are many points of cooperation,” said Kedar.

Kedar symbolizes the spirit of the Eric Fingerhut era, as the new Hillel International CEO creates positions to answer direct challenges from students on campuses asking the 100-year-old organization to evolve and rethink its Israel programming.

Working in the field of Jewish education since 1999, Kedar was an emissary to the United Kingdom and has been a formal and informal Jewish educator — and more recently trainer of educators — ever since.

“The uniqueness of the department is we can look from an overview,” said Kedar, whose job it is to streamline all the different Hillel and JAFI expertise and manpower.

In light of the challenges facing Jewish students this fall following the Gaza war, Kedar told The Times of Israel that Birthright-Israel Taglit agreed to give Hillel International a list of names and email contacts of former trip participants still on campuses. And Hillel has been in contact with them, trying to engage them, get them into Hillel for meals or social activities — and recruit them in the struggle against anti-Israel sentiment.

‘One of the things that we’ve learned is when you have a good pair of hands and feet on the ground, it helps a lot’

“It’s not just shlihim [emissaries]. You have these Birthright alums, which create a fuller package,” said Kedar. “If we utilize all these resources on the ground, we’re not helpless at all.”

The Israel Fellows reservists program is in the same vein: “One of the things that we’ve learned is when you have a good pair of hands and feet on the ground, it helps a lot,” said Kedar.

In merging all the Israel programs available from JAFI and Hillel on campuses, and at the same time leveraging human resources such as Birthright and Masa alum, Kedar has created a larger, smarter team that can utilize the expertise of both Hillel and JAFI professionals.

What do we talk about when we talk about Israel?

Last year saw a slew of ongoing criticism of Hillel for its lack of plurality of opinion on Israel. A grassroots student movement calling itself “Open Hillel” called for a revision of Hillel International guidelines, which essentially ban partnering with non-Zionist organizations.

Open Hillel will hold its first conference this October at Harvard with speakers including journalist Peter Beinart, gender theorist Judith Butler and Jewish Voice for Peace executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson. The student group pushes for broader conversations on the Israel-Palestinian conflict from a wide variety of perspectives.

“We’re all very aware of the criticism from Open Hillel. I would say that a very quick and not very in-depth look at the field would easily reveal the diversity and inclusivity of programming and the fact that every Jewish student is welcome at Hillel,” said Kedar.

In light of the Gaza conflict, however, she is more concerned about the students who are so turned off by the depiction of Israel in the media that they won’t even set foot in the door.

Israel Fellow reservist Ron Merkel at the Dartmouth Hillel, September 2014. (courtesy)
Israel Fellow reservist Ron Merkel at the Dartmouth Hillel, September 2014. (courtesy)

“We have students who feel they don’t know enough, can’t relate, so we’re looking for ways to make sure they engage at whatever knowledge level they have,” she said.

“We are training professionals on how to open these conversations, create a safe place, so students can say what they feel. Hillel is a home for all students and the convener of these conversations,” said Kedar. “We want to hear you, what you’re concerned about, what’s wrong, what’s right.”

Robbie Gringras of Makom is one of the experts helping the Hillel professionals learn to open the conversations.

Makom, a JAFI initiative, calls itself a “think and do tank.” It is the Jewish Agency’s central resource for Israel education and provides programming, content and workshops for Diaspora communities that tackle Israel’s complicated complexity Israeli style — head-on.

Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, Gringras is on an emergency whirlwind tour of 30 North American campuses, giving tailor-made seminars and training to Hillel professionals to help them frame conversations about the conflict.

And the emphasis is on conversation, not a prepared monologue of facts, said Gringras.

“A successful conversation is one that leads to the next conversation. [The Jewish professionals working with students] are not in it to win points or persuade. An educational experience is one that leads to more educational experiences,” said Gringas, fresh off the plane on his way to Berkeley in California.

“If you’re going into a conversation and your aim is to reach another conversation, you can be far more relaxed,” which leads to a totally different atmosphere of engagement, said Gringas.

In the past month, Makom has developed a conversation guide for Hillel staff to get the ball rolling through useful questions. Its philosophy is against depicting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black and white, right or wrong terminology. Instead it uses words such as “complicated” or “complex.”

Israel Fellow reservist Shani Knaani with her Israel engagement team at Elon University in North Carolina. (courtesy)
Israel Fellow reservist Shani Knaani with her Israel engagement team at Elon University in North Carolina. (courtesy)

“‘Complicated’ in our eyes is something quite exciting… ‘Challenging’ is currently a euphemism for difficult, it no longer sounds fun. But ‘complicated’ or ‘complex,’ should not be euphemisms for ‘uncomfortable,’ but expressions of how fascinating this place is,” said Gringras.

Gringas said it is not clear if this summer is a watershed moment on campuses, or whether the “volume will go down again.” What is plain, however, is that Hillel campus professionals are dealing with questions they’re not prepared to answer, often even on a personal level.

Gringras sees this as a lack of confidence on the part of Hillel staff in how to navigate that conversations. The emergency Makom workshops are enabling them to give students a framework to come up with their own questions and answers.

“There’s a difference between being clear on my own convictions and being able to hold a conversation with somebody else to help them come to their own convictions,” said Gringas. “There’s an awareness that with someone 19-20 years old, the last thing you want to do is to tell that person what to think.”

More partnership and pilot programs still on the horizon

The much-heralded, well-funded World Jewry Joint Initiative, a partnership between Diaspora Jewry and the Israeli government, is the logical home for future engagement endeavors on North American campuses.

It’s still in the planning stages, and an official from Naftali Bennett’s Diaspora Ministry told The Times of Israel last month that the ministry is using this historic opportunity to “think big” and create a new strategic model. The ministry, he said, is taking its time and not rushing into pilot projects, regardless of this summer’s conflict.

‘Due to the tense situation on campuses, there is great importance to swift, joint action’

The Jewish Agency, which already reaches 111 campuses throughout North America, has a backlog of dozens more that have requested urgent help. Tensions between JAFI and the Diaspora Ministry are palpable.

“Over the past few months, working with Jewish Federations, foundations, donors, and other organizations, we have developed two pilot initiatives that are a direct continuation of the strategic planning process. Our intention is to present these initiatives for discussion with the government as part of the agreed-upon decision-making procedure, in order to start implementing them immediately,” said Sharansky last week.

“Due to the tense situation on campuses, there is great importance to swift, joint action. I know that the foreign minister shares this sense of immediacy and has asked the prime minister to move forward with the initiatives,” said Sharansky.

So for a few weeks this fall, Hillels on campuses without permanent staff hosted the 20 Israel Fellow reservists, made shakshuka, talked about the news, and strategized for the future. But until the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and JAFI sort out their issues, hundreds more are still lacking the guidance to simply have a conversation about their feelings for a place they could call home, Israel.

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