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AIPAC's Student Activists: Pro-israel, pro-active, and often progressive

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 30/03/2016 Gil Troy
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American campuses are being Europeanized in the worst way - becoming hostile to Israel, to Zionism, to Jews. Feeling intimidated by propagandizing professors and hostile students, many Jews are abandoning Israel and even denying their Judaism.

Fortunately, not everyone is surrendering to this insane, unfair assault. There's a growing cadre of Jewish and non-Jewish students who - contrary to popular impression - often are progressive and pro-Israel, liberals and Zionists. They are confronting BDS bullies with counter-cultural courage and democratic passion.

Last week, at AIPAC's Policy conference, while everyone obsessed about that guy whose name starts with a T and ends most appropriately with "rump," I focused on the 4000 campus delegates attending - up more than 25 percent from last year. The impressive delegation of smart independent idealists included 310 student government presidents, 106 leaders of College Democrats and College Republicans, along with students from 55 of America's 100 historically black colleges and universities, 21 Christian-centered campuses and 12 Hispanic-serving institutions. Despite the AIPAC Bashers' caricatures from afar, most of these students are secular and liberal, often critical and skeptical, reflecting AIPAC's (and American Jewry's) dominant demographic.

Wondering what motivated them and which pro-Israel arguments swayed their peers, I asked Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC's visionary Leadership Development Director, who couldn't be interviewed for this article as a matter of AIPAC policy, to introduce me to some campus activists. Within five minutes, he had gathered five leaders who told their stories - dazzling me with their eloquence, enthusiasm, idealism, and commitment to Israel, America, and democratic values.

The three Jewish students articulated three different but overlapping motivations for their involvement: embracing Zionism, delighting in Israel, and fighting anti-Zionism. Becca Berman, a history major at University of California, Berkeley, founded Bears for Israel, what she unabashedly calls "a Zionist organization," to express her identity. She "drifted away" from Jewish affairs her freshman year and missed it. She and her friends seek "a forum to learn about, talk about, and celebrate Israel." As Identity Zionists, they don't just fight the political fight, they host "Israeli dance performances, Israeli cooking classes, etc." Berman urges worried parents to send their kids to Berkeley, noting that standing for Israel there strengthens their identities.

Sophia Kruger at the University of Pennsylvania emphasizes America's and Israel's "shared values of democracy, equality, freedom." She notes "that in the United States when I walk into a voting booth and cast my ballot it is counted exactly the same way as everyone else's even though I'm only 20 years old. There is only one country in the Middle East where that privilege exists, and that country is Israel."

Shani Benezra endured a course on "The New Middle East" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that was so "anti-Israel," the teacher only spoke about "Palestine" as if 1948 never happened. Being made to feel "unwelcome" as a Jew, experiencing this educational malpractice by a pro-BDS doctrinaire professor "only fueled" Benezra's "passion for promoting a strong US-Israel relationship."

Airen Washington's path to Israel activism was more unexpected. She is president of the College Democrats at Trinity Washington University, a Catholic-affiliated, 88 percent minority, women's college. She finds that while Israel is "not on the radar" of most of her fellow "minority students," they face a tidal wave of "propaganda and negative opinion" about it "on Twitter and Instagram." Contrary to the scoffing that talk of Start-Up Nation doesn't resonate, she finds that emphasizing Israel's "jobs, technology, and innovation" speaks to students in a language they are "familiar with." Benezra agrees, explaining that she looks for a hook that "relates" to students "personally." Speaking to engineers, for example, about Israel's technological contributions helps them "see a strong US-Israel relationship as essential."

Rejecting the heavy-handed, old-fashioned Israel right-or-wrong approach, Kruger from Penn understands that rather than spouting "a few key facts," it's best "to show people all sides of Israel." This democratic openness, "acknowledging that Israel is not perfect, just like the United States is not perfect," frees peers to reach their own conclusions, solidifying bonds.

Julian Coakley, a graduate student at Florida A&M, also appreciates that democratic fluidity. He says: "When I'm asked why I support pro-Israel issues and not black issues, I simply respond, 'I support all issues. Being pro-Israel does not mean I can't be pro-black or pro-Palestine." As a leading progressive activist on his campus, Coakley added something Airen Washington noted, that "Being involved with AIPAC has taught me skills that I can apply to the pro-black movement too."

Ultimately, the emotional connection cements the political and practical considerations. When Coakley visited Jerusalem, this member of the Uber-generation wondered how to hail a cab in this foreign city. An Israeli intervened to help. When Coakley reached into his pocket to tip the guy, he refused and instead "embraced me with a hug and said 'we're family!'"

Our students are suffering. When I addressed an overflowing room at AIPAC about The History of Zionism, every student who spoke recalled some harsh anti-Zionist experience or challenge. I see the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism rhetoric on campus and the huge obsession with little Israel. But I also see 45,000 students visiting Israel annually on Birthright and 9500 campus leaders trained by AIPAC annually. We must invest more so these roses flourish amid the thorns.

These inspiring AIPAC activists reinforce two essential lessons of Israel advocacy. Israel isn't Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, all brittle waiting to fall. Israel advocates must follow Jack in the nursery rhyme, being nimble and quick, jumping over candlesticks of glowing hatred. Israel's something dynamic to be engaged with in different and complex ways. Second, get personal, the more it's about Zionist dreaming not anti-anti-Zionism, the more engaged people will be. Julian Coakley's Israeli friend was correct. "We're family." Our best defense is celebrating our common values together passionately, creatively, intelligently, positively, joyfully.

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