As anti-Israel protestors step up their tactics to disrupt and, in some cases, shut down speakers that support Israel on college campuses across the country, 45 Jewish high school and college students from the Pacific Northwest came to Seattle on Feb. 21 to bone up on Jewish history and sharpen their verbal skills, as they brace for what some fear may be an onslaught of anti-Israel protest on their campuses.
In an effort to support these students, the Seattle chapter of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group headquartered in Los Angeles, held its first Northwest Regional Campus Israel Advocacy Conference to educate and train students on how to respond quickly and effectively to false or misleading allegations and claims about Israel.
“What we’re trying to do is empower them, instead of just countering allegations with other allegations,” said Robert Jacobs, regional director of StandWithUs Northwest. “We’re telling students to counter them with something that can’t be quibbled about, like the Hamas charter that talks about hunting down the Jews and killing them wherever they are.”
SWU Northwest sponsored this one-day event that featured regional leaders, representatives of Jewish groups on various campuses, and speakers from SWU’s Southern California office.
The recent arrests of 11 protestors at the University of California-Irvine on Feb. 8, who relentlessly shouted down Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren as he tried to speak, came after the moderator, Prof. Mark Petracca, chairman of UCI’s Political Science department, took to the podium to plead for a return to civility.
In her Feb. 12 column in The Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glickman warned American Jews, “As the demonstrations against Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine, against former prime minister Ehud Olmert at University of Chicago, against Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon at Oxford, as well as the disinvitation of Prof. Benny Morris at Cambridge and the celebrity of Harvard’s anti-Semitic Prof. Steve Walt show clearly, the bastions of intellectual elitism where American Jews feel most at home have become the repositories of the most virulent hatred of Jews in America and the West today.”
Maya Rozov, a former SWU student leader at UCI who is now with SWU’s national office, recounts what everyday life was like for her on that campus.
“When you see blood on an Israeli flag, it’s not a great day,” said Rozov, referring to a Muslim Student Union campus display in the spring of 2009 of 15 effigies of the Israeli flag splattered with blood.
One speaker, Rozov said, compared formation of the State of Israel to the Holocaust.
“How dare you use the word Holocaust and say that Israel and the Jews learned from the Nazis how to commit a Holocaust and now they’re doing it to the Palestinians,” she said.
Rozov said she always felt personally supported by the university administration, although it has never publicly decried this kind of speech on campus.
Dr. Roberta Seid, the education and research director for StandWithUs in Los Angeles, has been a historian and a lecturer in academia for more than 20 years. She has been teaching at UCI for the last three years.
“There is an extremely strong, well organized, and large Muslim Student Union that is very active and extremely aggressive,” said Seid, who lectured on Jewish history at the conference for the morning session.
During their Palestine Awareness Week, she said, they have brought in speakers such as Israel critics Norman Finkelstein and British Parliament member George Galloway.
During two annual campus events on the UCI campus, Palestinian Awareness Week and Apartheid Week, in which Israel is the villain, Seid said displays can contain pictures of decapitated Gazan children — or this year’s artist’s rendering of Anne Frank wearing a kafiyah, the black and white checkered scarf that has come to symbolize the Palestinian freedom movement.
“What this anti-Israel movement is trying to do is drive a wedge between social justice values and supporting Israel,” Seid said. “We’re trying to teach people that that wedge doesn’t belong there and that by supporting Israel, you do support social justice values.
“Is Israel perfect? No, of course not,” Seid added. “But there is a kind of bias against Israel that is very fashionable. There are only a few faculty members that don’t agree or that have another point of view. My students come up to me and say, ‘We never hear this.’”
According to Jacobs, many of the same speakers also come to the University of Washington campus.
“When we have one of these speakers coming on to campus, we get tons of calls from students who say, ‘What can we do to respond to this?’” he said. “We provide material and we provide training.”
At the Seattle conference, Bryan Solomon, a Lakeside High School senior, waited eagerly for the day’s activities to begin.
“My parents thought it would be a good idea to come to this since I will be going to college at Western Washington University next year,” he said.
Two students from WWU, Adi Kletter, a senior, and Uri Chotzen, a junior, are hoping to start the first pro-Israel club on their campus.
Adam Gillman, a WWU freshman, said he wants to be more verbally prepared.
“It’s such an instrumental and important time in our lives when we start to gain our ideals as young Jews,” said Gillman. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Israel. The whole outlook on Israel is very idealistic, but not very realistic.”
During the conference’s interactive training session, students practiced responding to some of the most common allegations they hear at their schools.
Topping their list were four common anti-Israel accusations propagated by its detractors — that Israel is an apartheid system, that Israel is systematically starving Gazans, and that Israelis are living on stolen land, and that Israel is consistently violating the human rights of Palestinians.
Nevet Basker, regional advisory chair for SWU, led the session.
“We’re giving them communication tools to respond in the most effective manner with the most compelling answer,” Basker said. “We’re practicing by doing.”
Shira Jaret, SWU’s local campus and program coordinator, said that their main objective is coalition-building.
“We don’t have a political solution, but students just need to hear the facts,” said Jaret. “Israel is actually at the forefront of human rights. We just want to open up a dialogue and develop a network of students.”
In Seattle, a group called Israel Forever formed on the UW campus a year ago and are working with SWU.
According to Rozov, the pro-Israel group on the UCI campus, Anteaters for Israel, is becoming well organized and active. She said they are trying to emphasize that there are two sides to every story.
“The Jewish pro-Israel groups on campus are getting stronger and stronger,” Rozov said. “The students on campus are motivated and educated because they realize they can either run away, or they can deal with the issues and educate people. That’s the stance that the students have taken.”