NEW YORK — As Marvel Joseph walked down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem for the first time, his grandmother’s words echoed in his head: “Have love for the Jewish people.”
It was 2018 and Joseph, now 23, was visiting Israel as part of AIPAC’s African-American student leader trip. An emotional trip, it was just one stop on the way to his new job as coalitions coordinator with the Maccabee Task Force (MTF). In this role he aims to build support for Israel at historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs.
HBCUs were established in the United States, mostly post-Civil War, to educate freed slaves, who were prohibited from most universities due to racism. Today, about 214,000 students attend about 105 HBCUs nationwide.
Because the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement isn’t as entrenched at HBCUs at other US campuses, the 23-year-old said he considers his job to be “proactive, rather than reactive.”
“My biggest goal is to get pro-Israel advocates on campus. Israel is not a top five issue for a lot of students at HBCUs. BDS is not a big topic either, but I don’t want to wait for the day BDS comes on campus,” Joseph, a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University, said in Zoom call with The Times of Israel.
Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson founded the Maccabee Task Force in 2015 to oppose BDS and to cultivate support for Israel on campuses across the US. Today the group has a presence on more than 100 campuses.
“There was a time for obvious reasons when Jews and Blacks were united in struggle in America. For a lot of people that was the golden era,” said David Brog, MTF’s executive director.
“It’s always been a dream of mine that these two communities who suffered so much discrimination and suffered so much from racism rebuild those bonds of affection,” Brog said. “But if you want to do that, you have to step back and say, ‘We’d like to get to know you. We’d like to share our story with you and hear your story.’”
As part of this strategy, Joseph suggested taking a group of Black student leaders to Israel. Brog approved of the idea, and 31 students and five advisors from several HBCUs went on MTF’s first such trip this past December.
While in Israel, they learned about the global impact of anti-Semitism as well as Israeli culture.
They visited with African migrants in Tel Aviv’s Kuchinate African refugee women’s collective, met with lawyers working with Ethiopian law center Tebeka, and spoke with Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah. They also visited with residents along the Gazan border and celebrated Christmas in Nazareth.
It was an unforgettable experience, said Edward Turner, an MBA candidate at an Alabama school.
Turner, who majored in political science as an undergraduate, said Israel and anti-Semitism were not pressing issues at his school. (MTF asked that the name of the school remain anonymous to protect it against social media attacks.)
“I really didn’t have any opinion on the country itself,” Turner said. “In the last five or six years a lot of headlines that have come out about Israel have been very controversial. I thought it was going to be a hotbed of controversy.”
Instead, he said he found the country to be peaceful, complex and varied.
“I didn’t realize how diverse Israel’s population is. I was also surprised by the varying amounts of opinions,” Turner said. “We’d talk to three or four people in one setting and everybody had a different opinion about what was going on. Coming back from this trip, I would urge people to try to understand nuance, try to understand both perspectives of anything and reach across the aisle.”
Dr. Jonathan Sarna, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said MTF’s outreach efforts make good sense.
“Jews are some of the most concentrated groups in the US. That means HBCUs, by geography, are not in areas where students meet many, if any, Jews,” Sarna said. “They don’t know anything about Jews or Israel except for what they heard or read. Visiting a place, being there, transforms your sense of a country.”
The trip was a chance for me to learn and make my own opinion
Another student who went on the trip said she relished the opportunity to act as an ambassador of sorts for her campus, which has no Jewish students or Jewish organizations. The rising sophomore spoke with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity out of concern that she would be attacked on social media for participating.
“The trip was a chance for me to learn and make my own opinion. It’s important not to let the media decide [for you] about Israel. You have to see it and study it and experience it on your own,” she said, adding that the visit to Tebeka was one of the highlights, along with touring the various Christian sites and sampling new foods.
For Joseph, his first visit to Israel helped solidify his goal of wanting to do advocacy work.
Joseph, who is Christian and the child of Haitian immigrants, first dipped his toe in Israel advocacy waters while attending Florida State University. Interested in politics, and having grown up with many Jewish friends, he got involved with NolePAC, a pro-Israel group on campus.
But in fact, the seeds for his affinity for Israel were planted long before. His grandmother, a missionary, spoke fondly of Israel and reminded him to value Jewish people. Then, in 2010, a 7.0 earthquake ravaged Haiti. Joseph remembered his parents, who still had family in Haiti, thanking Israel for providing humanitarian aid. Curious, Joseph did some research.
He read about how Haiti was one of few countries that offered refuge to Jews escaping Nazi rule in Europe. He learned how in 1947, Haiti cast the UN vote that put approval for Israel’s statehood over the top.
It’s stories such as these that Joseph wants to share with HBCUs.
“HBCUs are the next generation of Black leaders. My goal is to meet them, encourage them to travel to Israel,” Joseph said. “You can read about Israel, but until you go how can you make an unbiased decision? I want them to go and make their own informed decision.”