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From the Top Down: Head Eds Face Israel

August 18, 2005 By:
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Bryan schwartzman Jewish Exponent Staff Since the Palestinians launched a war of attrition popularly called the second intifada nearly five years ago, the public-relations deck has been stacked in their favor, especially on college campuses across the United States. Philadelphia-area institutions of higher education hardly differ in this regard. At Swarthmore College, for instance - a 1,500-student, liberal-arts institution steeped in the Quaker tradition of activism - the political atmosphere has at times been so hostile that pro-Israel students there have been afraid to speak their minds.

Officials at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and United Jewish Communities, however, believe they may have the solution for promoting a better image of Israel to those in charge of colleges like Swarthmore. If a university president, dean or provost saw the Jewish state firsthand, argue these officials, then anti-Israel biases might prove less resistant to mediation.

In such a spirit, the two organizations sent eight college administrators from small to mid-sized colleges to the Jewish state last month as part of a mission that also included Jewish professionals and lay leaders.

Robert Gross, dean at Swarthmore, took part in the trip, as did Peyton Helm, president of Muhlenberg University in Allentown. The six other administrators represented Old Dominion University in Virginia, Manchester Community College in Connecticut, Bellarmine University in Kentucky, Wheelock College in Massachusetts, and Ocean County College and Kean University, both in New Jersey.

The hope was not to transform the educators into card-carrying Zionists overnight, but to give them a more in-depth understanding of the situation and help them build crucial relationships with Jewish professionals.

"At this critical time for the future of Israel and efforts to advance prospects for peace, we are especially excited to bring key higher-education leaders to meet with Israeli decision-makers, university presidents and ordinary citizens," said JCPA chair Marie Abrams in a statement.

For Gross, who is Jewish but had never before been to Israel, the weeklong July trip offered a window into the complexities of Israeli society and the country's conflict with the Palestinians. Among other activities, the group met with Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak, ate lunch with various Knesset members and spoke with Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in eastern Jerusalem.

"What we tend to read in the newspaper is that this is a political conflict," said Gross, 64, who happened to attend Swarthmore as an undergraduate. "But it has become an existential conflict about Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state."

Dawood Farahi, the 57-year-old from Kean University who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 1972, described his week in Israel as an enlightening experience.

Speaking about the visit, Farahi, a Christian, relayed a conversation he had with Barak at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem: "He talked about the difficulties of [creating] a democratic Jewish state. What do you do with the large number of Israel Arabs? What do you with these territories? Sooner or later, you have to come up with a solution."

Upon his return, Peyton R. Helm, president of Muhlenberg, penned a column with a Jewish lay leader from Allentown that appeared in The Morning Call.

"Complexity hardly begins to describe the situation," he wrote. "We were exposed to powerful arguments against disengagement. Knesset member Uri Stern warned us that disengagement gives up land without securing any concession in return, rewards terrorists, encourages further violence, and will result in strategic vulnerability if Gaza becomes an arsenal and a staging area for further attacks on Israel."

But while Helm chose to make his experiences public in a daily newspaper, Gross said he didn't feel qualified to write an article or speak in public. Despite Swarthmore's history of flare-ups over Israel, Gross expressed a certain measure of ambivalence with regard to Israeli government policies, especially when it came to the security barrier built to prevent terrorist incursions from the West Bank.

"You can't say the fence is not intrusive," pronounced Gross. "Where it is a fence, it takes up a fairly wide swath. It imposes hardships.

"Where it is a wall," he continued, "it is a 15-foot-high concrete barrier. In a sense, it's unfortunate. But I understand the reasons for it. It seems to work."

Ambivalence, though, is okay, according to Asaf Romirowsky, Israel Affairs Associate for the Israel and Overseas Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who invited Gross to participate on the program and accompanied him to Israel.

"Listen, it is Swarthmore. It's his first time in Israel. His perception is [based on] the education he received at Swarthmore, which is very pro-Palestinian, very liberal," he said. "Of course, he's going to be skeptical."

Romirowsky then offered a more upbeat assessment: "This is something we can build upon. He came back with a more open-minded outlook on the situation. It's a foot in the door."

 

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