Will a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the United Nations — perhaps coupled with mass demonstrations in the Middle East and even more violence on the ground — spark anti-Israel activism on college campuses locally and nationally?
While no one knows quite what to expect, either on the world stage or on campuses, student activists and professional advocates have spent time over the summer gearing up for a potentially contentious fall. A number of local students took time out from their summer schedules to travel to two training seminars that, at least in part, focused on Israel's advocacy and ways to frame the discussion about the U.N. debate on campus.
The fear is that a unilateral declaration could spark the levels of anti-Israel sentiment — complete with Israel "apartheid" walls and mock checkpoints — on campus not seen since last year's deadly flotilla raid or after Israel's military campaign in Gaza almost three years ago.
But, on the whole, students at Philadelphia-area campuses aren't expecting the sky to fall. The region's campuses haven't seen the kind of hostility towards the Jewish state exhibited by student groups and faculty at places like the University of California, Irvine; Columbia University; and York University in Toronto.
Stephanie King, a 22-year-old Drexel University graduate student, traveled to Washington, D.C., last month for a one-day, "emergency fly-in," advocacy training seminar sponsored by the Israel Campus Coalition. The ICC used to be under the umbrella of Hillel but is now an independent organization, funded in part by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
"I don't feel like anyone here on Drexel's campus is too concerned," said King, a member of the group Dragons for Israel, which, she noted, is far more visible on campus than any pro-Palestinian group. "Dragons for Israel does kind of get in everyone's face once in a while."
But King heard a different story as she met with 180 students from across the country, including two others from Philly schools. Students spoke of feeling overwhelmed by more organized and savvy pro-Palestinian groups.
According to King and others, the message at the ICC fly-in — planned specifically as a response to reports about Palestinian intentions at the United Nations — was less about defeating the other side than changing the parameters and tone of the discussion.
Students spent the day in Washington learning about the ICC's new public initiative called Real Partners, Real Peace. This campaign places the emphasis on the need for a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians and labels a unilateral declaration as counterproductive.
Nine other organizations, including Hillel and Christians United for Israel, are co-sponsoring the initiative.
While some on the right of the political spectrum might object to the emphasis on a two-state solution, ICC executive director Stephen Kuperberg said that the message should resonate with a broad range of students who, when it comes to the Middle East conflict, have been looking to articulate what they are for, rather than what they are against.
"There is already a broad interest and broad expression of support for these principles in the campus community. They represent the vast middle ground — those who want to see a best result between Israelis and Palestinians," said Kuperberg, who until recently was a partner at a Washington, D.C., law firm.
Though the day-long session focused on tangible ways to bring the message of a two-state settlement to the campus community, it's not yet clear how the campaign will unfold locally.
Temple University is the local campus that's seen the most pro-Palestinian activism in recent years, according to many observers. Emily Green, a junior who sits on the board of Temple Students for Israel and attended the ICC training event, said her group hadn't met yet to address how to implement the Real Partners, Real Peace agenda.
"We are concerned. But it's still the summer, and we are just going about our programming as usual with the fact in mind that things may heat up," said Green.
In addition to the ICC program, a far larger group of local students, about 40 in all, attended a multi-day Hillel conference in St. Louis that focused, in part, on Israel. The overall theme of the conference was that student leaders are most effective at getting students involved — whether the goal is attending services or traveling to Israel — by meeting in informal settings.
The session focusing on Israel was less about how to respond to upcoming events than focusing on ways to change the overall tenor of the campus conversation.
At the St. Louis conference, Hillel's newly created Center for Israel Engagement announced that it is planning to set up tents at 20 campuses nationwide for students to gather for a day of "civil dialogue" about Israel and Middle East issues.
Tents are planned for Princeton University and the University of Delaware — both are about an hour's drive from Philadelphia — but not at area campuses, according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
"We will not be making use of this particular platform. We have other ideas for motivating students," said Alpert, adding that a bus trip to New York is planned on Sept. 21 to protest outside the United Nations. "The tent itself is a marketing idea that may attract some students into the conversation and may not. What is most essential is not the tent but the quality of the conversation that students are prepared to have with other students. We will be training our students to have those conversations."
University of Pennsylvania bio-engineering student Naomi Hachen attended the St. Louis conference and plans to protest in New York. Hachen, as a recruitment intern for Masa — an Israeli nonprofit — helps students interested in studying in Israel find the right programs, largely through one-on-one meetings.
She said students at Penn feel little need to change their overall approach to advocacy. Last semester's Israel Week drew attendance and coverage in The Daily Pennsylvanian, but no protests.
Pro-Palestinian activism is "definitely something I think about and am aware of but not something I have to plan actively" against, she said.
The goal is for students and Hillel professionals to think long-term, rather than respond to one event, according to Sharon Ashley, former editor of The Jerusalem Report, who is the founding director of the Hillel initiative.
The debate on campus about Israel is often "messy, noisy, contentions, fractious," said Ashley. "I'm hoping to change the conversational tone over time. That's not to say there won't be apartheid walls and checkpoints put up, but we are taking a long-term approach."