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Pinpointing Israel on Campus

March 11, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman
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As students trudged their way down Locust Walk to classes on a chilly Monday morning last week, University of Pennsylvania freshman Eliana Holm was trying to ply her fellow students with hot coffee and blue-sprinkled kosher cookies, all in the name of Israel.

"Israel loves coffee, and so do you," she hollered, doing her best to attract passers-by to the freebies, which included flyers about the Jewish state's efforts to make peace with its neighbors.

While some students accepted the handouts, others waved them off.

"I've got to get to class," one said. "I'm trying to lose weight" another claimed.

The morning activities on the Penn campus -- which also included face-painting and reading of Israeli poetry in front of an Israeli flag emblazoned with the phrase "Peace. Love. Israel." -- were repeated throughout the week.

It was all a part of "Israel Peace Week," a national movement to counteract "Israel Apartheid Week," which seeks to portray the Jewish state's policies toward Arabs and the Palestinians as analogous to the once-separatist South African regime. The group's campaign to delegitimize Israel includes efforts to push for boycotts, divestment and sanctions of the Jewish state.

By most accounts, this year's anti-Israel activities -- which actually spanned last week and this, coinciding with spring break on many campuses -- was a bust across the nation. Local campuses, too, were relatively quiet, both last year and this year. According to the Anti-Defamation League's Web page, only 14 cities in the United States marked "Apartheid Week" this year, and Philadelphia was not on that list.

Suburban Philadelphia campuses seem to have been spared as well. The week proved "a complete nonevent" at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, Jewish students adviser Isabel DeKoninck said via e-mail.

But while the climate here appeared calmer, pro-Israel students weren't taking any chances. As they watch many of their counterparts nationwide facing hostile, sometimes violent encounters, local students joined the national effort to be proactive on behalf of the Jewish state.

The "Israel Peace Week" activities at Penn followed up a week of appearances by members of the Israel Defense Force, who visited several Philadelphia-area schools on a tour coordinated by the pro-Israel group StandWithUs.

The timing was merely a scheduling coincidence, according to Hela Lahar, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia's Israel programming director.

The attempt, she said, was to give students a chance to relate to regular Israelis their age and see another side of country.

One of the best ways for students to learn to advocate for the Jewish state, she said, is simply for them to be inspired to learn more about it independently and to have positive experiences interacting with Israelis.

'Going to Continue to Grow'

The intensity of anti-Israel activity on some campuses is highlighted in a new documentary "Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus." The 40-minute film focuses on campuses from New York to California, with an emphasis on Canada.

Aish Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia are co-sponsoring a local screening of the film on March 18 at the Hilton on City Line Avenue. The program will also feature remarks from Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli-Arab journalist who began his career working for a PLO newspaper and now writes for The Jerusalem Post.

Wayne Kopping, who directed "Crossing the Line," said that although not all campuses are as vitriolic as those shown in the film, the situation has been intensifying, and "unless we actually check it now, it's just going to continue to grow."

Kopping, who has made films on similar topics in the past, including "Obsession" and "The Third Jihad," has worked in television and film in his native South Africa, directing commercials, music videos and a short documentary about Nelson Mandela. He suggested that the atmosphere tends to be worse at schools on the West Coast and in Canada, with higher Arab and Muslim immigrant populations or more active left-wing politics.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, agreed. He said that the local region has a comparatively small Arab and Muslim population on its campuses. He also said that Jewish students in the area have historically had good relations with those groups, which has helped to mitigate problems before they intensified.

He said that the clashes over Israel are less of a problem between students. When problems do occur, he confirmed, it's "almost entirely in the context" of students interacting with professors.

In fact, "Crossing the Line" includes remarks from a Bryn Mawr College student concerned about university faculty speaking out against Israel in the classroom.

'Kind of Quiet'

Concerns over the general climate on campus have inspired some pro-Israel faculty from universities across the area to form a Delaware Valley chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

The organizational meeting, held last month at the new Edward H. Rosen Hillel Center at Temple University, focused on the importance of creating an atmosphere where educators feel that it's OK to be pro-Israel, and making sure younger, untenured academics feel comfortable speaking up in support of the Jewish state without fear of reprisals.

Ed Newman, a professor at Temple who chairs Philadelphia's Israel Campus Coalition and was instrumental in trying to build the local chapter, noted that the goal is to be pro-Israel, irrespective of politics, "because that doesn't seem to be possible when it comes to Israel in the last number of years."

The nonprofit group is open to scholars from all fields, faiths and nationalities, and works to educate faculty on how best to respond to anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Muslim slanders in academic journals and in the classroom, where students may not feel comfortable speaking up in support of the Jewish state.

Since arriving at Temple University in the fall of 2007, junior Gabe Toran said that he's seen a decline in the level of anti-Israel activity on campus, whether from professors or student groups.

He said that while there were no official "Apartheid Week" events at Temple this year and it's been "kind of quiet," there still exists "an anti-Israel culture within some groups" on campus, including some with vocal faculty advisers.

"It really could just pop back onto the campus at any moment," said Toran, president of the group Temple Students for Israel.

Jeremy Brochin, the outgoing director of Penn Hillel, takes a long view of the situation. He observed that during times of heavy political turmoil, both sides have ratcheted up their activities on campus.

"I think during the intifada and when things were heavy-duty on the West Bank, then obviously, there was more political activity on both sides," said Brochin, who after 23 years at Penn will be stepping aside at the close of the academic year for associate director Rabbi Mike Uram to take the helm.

"But I think we're in a bit of a lull right now," said Brochin, who will acquire a new role at Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

Back on Locust Walk, Penn freshman Kevin Beckoff was optimistic that the food and flyers that he and others were distributing could help inspire a positive image of the Jewish state.

Just by slowing down to take notice, he said, students have "already associated the two words together: Israel and peace."

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