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Getting Schooled on the Intricacies of Israel Advocacy on Campus

March 26, 2014 By:
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Moderators Emmy Cohen (far left) and Skyler Kahn grill panelists Seth Harrison, Ben Kramer, Josh Bowman and Molly Wernick.

Raising awareness of Israel’s perspective in the Middle East conflict. Responding to death threats and racial epithets. Rebutting the controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or Students for Justice in Palestine, a national pro-Palestinian student group active at many universities. 

These difficult challenges facing pro-Israel students prompted The Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, along with the Collaborative Hebrew High School of Adath Israel and Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, to host a second annual panel with former students who went on to advocate for Israel at their universities.

“It’s an opportunity to get a sense of what you guys might be facing on campuses and to give you a sense about how Jewish Israel plays out on these campuses,” program organizer Asaf Romirowsky told the roughly 50 area students who attended the March 23 event. Romi­rowsky, an analyst on the Middle East, teaches a course called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict in the 20th and 21st Centuries” at Gratz’s Hebrew high school.

Two current students in the Gratz program, Skyler Kahn and Emmy Cohen, moderated the panel and asked several pointed questions, pressing the panelists for personal experiences and seeking tips on how to prepare to become successful campus ambassadors for Israel.

The main message from the panelists: Know your stuff and learn how to engage others in open dialogue.

“The best tool you can give yourself is knowledge,” said Molly Wernick, a graduate of Ithaca College who now runs programs for the Collaborative, a social group for Jewish young professionals. “Just educate yourself as much as possible.”

Wernick urged students to gain a balanced understanding of the Middle East conflict, which means, she said, learning about opinions they may not share themselves. 

“If you don’t know what it is you’re advocating for, you can’t advocate for it; and if you don’t know what you’re taking a stand against, then how do you know you are actually against it?” she challenged the audience.

Wernick’s experiences at Ithaca, a liberal arts college, where she said she encountered many Palestinian supporters and was at times “actively harassed by students,” did not mirror those of Seth Harrison and Ben Kramer, who currently attend George Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.

Harrison said most students at George Washington have a “solid baseline of knowledge of the conflict” and, as such, he felt that the BDS movement has little traction at the D.C. school. Likewise, Kramer said he has yet to come across anti-Israel advocates at Penn, a university that has a large Jewish student body and is ranked No. 7 on a Hillel list of top private colleges by Jewish population.

Josh Bowman, who is studying at Stanford University and rounded out the panel, suggested finding creative ways to make Israel’s case.

Bowman originally chose to live in an African-American themed dorm just “to mix things up” and expand his college experience. When pro-Palestinian students asked officers of the Black Student Union at Stanford, who happen to live in the same dorm as Bowman, to sign an anti-Israel petition, he found himself in a unique position.

“Since they knew I lived in the dorm, they came to talk to me about it,” Bowman said. “I met with them for an hour and a half, and wrote them a letter which convinced them not to sign.”

Though anti-Israel sentiment and the often-confrontational spirit that accompanies it may be awaiting these students when they reach college, there is at least one fight the panelists suggested that students won’t need to worry about — fighting among pro-Israel groups with different perspectives.

While groups in the mainstream adult community often clash and trade barbs, on college campuses, the groups leave the dirt aside to work together to provide pro-Israel students with a comfortable platform and network from which they can support the Jewish state, the panelists said.

Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and J Street “really do operate in different spheres,” said Kramer, but they also are “closely tied in some aspects — it’s not that it’s a rivalry.”

Wernick agreed, adding that several students on her campus who were active with the Union for Progressive Zionists — a group that preceded the creation of J Street — would attend AIPAC’s annual conference in the nation’s capital to get involved with lobbying on Israel’s behalf.

Moderator Kahn said he thinks the information he learned at the panel will be useful when he starts his freshman year in the fall; he is deciding between Drexel University and Arizona State University.

“It definitely helped me prepare myself mentally,” said the Holland resident and senior at Council Rock South High School, “I’m thinking I want to get involved in AIPAC because I feel like they make the most difference.”

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