Workshop preps students for pro-Israel activism
Hasbara Fellowship executive director Elliot Mathias, right, speaks with students who attended an Aug. 22 program in South River on strategies for dealing with anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Photos by Debra Rubin
September 6, 2011
Helping students defend Israel on campus was the subject of an Aug. 22 workshop in South River.
Some 55 high school juniors and seniors, college students, parents, and grandparents attended “Israel Prep 101,” cosponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, JerusalemOnline University, and Hasbara Fellowships.
Held at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, the program featured two local residents who have defended Israel at Rutgers and Columbia universities.
“The response is always education,” said a third presenter, Elliot Mathias, founder and director of Hasbara Fellowships. “I can make up anything I want. Your message is not to respond to these [anti-Israel] comments but to get the message across that Israel is a good place. Israel did not steal the land from the Arabs. Israel wants peace — but it has no partners.”
Arming students with knowledge provides them with the confidence to feel less intimidated by untruths.
“You cannot lose the battle” if the message that Israel wants peace comes across, said Matthias, whose project is affiliated with Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach group.
Danielle Reich of East Brunswick, a Columbia University sophomore and New York-area director for Hasbara Fellowships, spoke of an active pro-Palestinian movement on her Manhattan campus. Its activities have included “die-ins” in which students depicting Palestinians allegedly murdered by Israeli soldiers drop to the ground.
While she described the situation as “scary,” Reich said the university also has a strong pro-Israel presence.
Reich, who is assigned to work with students at Columbia, New York, Princeton, and Rutgers universities in the coming year, said she does not object to classes or forums that highlight Palestinian culture or discuss Israeli policies.
However, at Columbia, it has often been impossible to engage pro-Palestinian students in constructive discussion, she said.
Instead, the pro-Israeli students’ approach has been to focus on Israel’s democracy and desire for peace and to form alliances with other campus groups, including Black Student Organization. That alliance has grown so strong that Reich and other Jewish students have been asked to sit on the student board of the new NAACP chapter at Columbia.
“Just remain positive,” she said, “and keep your head high and know there is a network of students and community organizations to help you when you need it.”
Liran Kapoano of Somerset, a recent graduate of Rutgers, is now campus coordinator for colleges “east of the Mississippi” for JerusalemOnline. Among other initiatives, the program pays students to take on-line courses.
Kapoano founded Scarlet, Blue and White: The Rutgers Pro-Israel Alliance on campus, formed in the wake of a series of pro-Palestinian events held at the University in New Brunswick.
“Don’t be afraid to stand up,” said Kapoano. “Be prepared and never be afraid because as long as you have the facts you will be telling the truth.”
He offered another piece of advice, inspired by Rutgers Hillel’s response to the pro-Palestinian movement’s Israel Apartheid Week.
“Always have food,” said Kapoano. “We had cake at our table and they had nothing. Everyone came to us and no one went to them. It was a stroke of genius.”
Teen advocacy training
Courses designed to empower high school students to be advocates for Israel are being introduced at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
“After watching all the [anti-Israel] events that went on on the Rutgers campus last year and other events around the country, I began to think what we as a community could do to help our kids,” said synagogue vice president for youth and education Sharon Lipson. “My own daughter is going into her junior year of high school and I realized she and her friends would soon be on a college campus.”
The courses, for students in eighth-12th grade, are open not just to teens in the congregation’s own Hebrew high school, but to the entire community.
The curriculum was developed by the David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy organization that works with college students to assume leadership roles and bring Israel events and programs to campuses.
The EBJC program, to be held on Wednesdays evenings, will offer a course on Jewish identity for eighth- and ninth-graders to strengthen the connection between Israel and Jewish life. Among the topics to be covered are understanding Israel’s role for the Jewish people, how Israel is portrayed in the media, and understanding the so-called occupation.
Older students will study the Israeli-Arab conflict, including both Jewish and Arab refugee populations, the geographic characteristics of the conflict, and the occupation and peace process.
Religious school director Nita Polay Levin and Laura Silverman, who will teach the Jewish identity course, recently joined hundreds of other educators in New York for training by the David Project, which will supply support, consultation, site visits, and resources.
Courses run from 6:30 to 8 p.m. with free pizza. Students are welcome to join evening minyan to be held immediately afterward. For information, call the synagogue at 732-257-7070. For more information, visit www.thedavidproject.org.
— DEBRA RUBIN