Gathering on Rutgers campus touts U.S.-Israel ties
Event is first in series meant as response to pro-Palestinian activity
Joining Hillel International president Wayne Firestone, far right, at the Israel advocacy dinner at Rutgers University are, from left, Rutgers Hillel leaders Rabbi Akiva Weiss, Jewish Learning Initiative director; Matt Nover, education chair; and Andrew Getraer, director.
February 3, 2011
In a turnout that exceeded organizers’ expectations, leaders representing 23 student organizations gathered at Rutgers University to hear politicians, an Israeli diplomat, and others tout the United States-Israel relationship.
The Jan. 31 gathering at the Douglass Student Center in New Brunswick was part of a pro-Israel effort organized by Rutgers Hillel largely in response to a flurry of pro-Palestinian activity on campus.
Two days earlier, the student center was the site of a pro-Palestinian event that drew a raucous crowd of pro-Israel demonstrators.
The leadership gathering drew 106 people, including Ruth Cole and Jacob Toporek, the president and executive director, respectively, of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.
The association was a cosponsor, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and Scarlet Blue and White, a pro-Israel student organization.
Last month state federations pledged $10,000 to Hillel for pro-Israel activity.
Gerald Ostrov, a Middlesex federation board member, said he “felt it was very important” to support Israel advocacy at Rutgers and was “very happy to see a diverse group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students who learned a lot about the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
“This really exceeded any expectation we could have hoped for,” said Boaz Morris of Little Silver, a member of Scarlet Blue and White. “I think everybody got a lot out of it. It brought together a lot of groups who we will be speaking to in the future.”
The student groups included a number of fraternities and sororities, the Catholic Student Association, members of the governing councils of the university’s various schools and campuses, and Rutgers Shalom-Salaam, a group bringing together Jewish and Muslim students.
Also attending was Yousef Saleh, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, who said he had also gone to the pro-Palestinian program two nights earlier as an observer.
“I didn’t clap at either event,” he said. "I just sat and listened as part of my responsibilities as RUSA president.”
Although Saleh said he was a little disappointed that neither side made more of an effort to reach out to the other, he understood feelings were somewhat raw. He said he hoped to bring the two sides together in a “hummus summit” and would extend an invitation to NJ Gov. Chris Christie.
Also featured at the Jan. 31 program — the first event in a campaign planned to defend Israel in the face of pro-Palestinian activism — were U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6) and Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) (see sidebar); Shlomi Kofman, Israeli deputy consul general in New York; and Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel International.
Investment, not aid
In introducing the panel, Liran Kapoano of Somerset, a founder and president of Scarlet Blue and White, said that in 2009 New Jersey companies exported more than $772 million worth of goods and services to Israel. Since 1991 the state has generated approximately $15 billion from trade with Israel, resulting in significant job creation and tax revenue.
He added that Israel was also an international leader in developing green technology and military hardware that has saved “countless” American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and that it gave the world such high-tech advancements as the cell phone and instant messaging.
“And right here at Rutgers, partnerships with professors at the Technion, Weizmann Institute, and Hebrew University are leading to advancements in pollution detection, food preservation, and medical technologies,” said Kapoano. “So perhaps ‘aid’ isn’t the right word when referring to Israel, and instead the word we should use is investment — an investment with a tremendous return.”
Kofman, who was stationed in Thailand when it was devastated by a tsunami in December 2004, directed Israel’s humanitarian efforts in its aftermath. He and Firestone told personal stories about Israelis’ humanitarian efforts.
Kofman said Israel has a longstanding history of sharing knowledge and resources with Thailand. He recalled going to a remote school that used teaching methods developed in Israel and whose staff was trained by Israeli educators.
“You can find this tikun olam in Latin America, China, or Africa,” said Kofman. “It has no economic purpose, no hidden agenda. We just want to share our knowledge.”
Firestone recalled traveling with a human rights law group to Liberia during a period of civil unrest. While in a remote village populated by its Muslim Mandingo minority, he was sitting in a small hotel lounge when he heard Hebrew being spoken.
“I walked over to those folks at this back table and they were indeed Israelis,” he said. “They were a team of Israeli physicians from Hadassah Hospital who came over every year as part of a rotation, performing a type of eye surgery. They took people and gave them sight.”
Campaigns that seek to delegitimize Israel overlook its many humanitarian efforts as well as its thriving democratic institutions, said Firestone.
“Other human rights communities may not know this, but the students at Rutgers know Israel inspires,” he said.
‘Our best friend in the Middle East’
Speaking at a Jan. 31 event at Rutgers University celebrating the U.S.-Israel relationship, U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6) and Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) agreed there was little argument between Democrats and Republicans when it came to supporting Israel.
Lance, cochair of the Republican Israel Caucus, said it operates in a bipartisan fashion on “matters of interest to Israel and pro-Israel Americans, which I am certain is the majority of Americans.”
“Certainly we believe in Israel’s right to defend itself from attack, particularly from Gaza,” said Lance. “It is essential it have the right to defend itself from terrorists.”
Lance outlined the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to both the United States and Israel and recalled a mission taken to Israel led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
On an excursion to Ramallah, the group met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was asked if he thought Israel had a right to exist.
“He said yes," said Lance. "Then he was asked if he thought Israel had a right to exist as a Jewish state, and he did not answer. Let me be clear: Israel has a right to exist and Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.”
Pallone, whose legislative district includes Rutgers, said he had always had a “romanticized” vision of Israel honed from the Exodus story, and how Zionists created a country and language from scratch.
“But forgetting my romantic vision…, Israel is our best friend and only democracy in the Middle East,” he said, pointing out the more Israelis develop solar and wind energy technology used in the United States, “the less dependent we are on foreign oil.”
“Trade relations are very important, as are military relations, much of it in intelligence sharing,” said Pallone, who said he has urged the Obama administration to continue supplying “the best military hardware” to Israel.