Combating anti-Semitism on campus

Anti-Semitic fliers were printed on networked campus printers at the University of California Santa Cruz. Christians United for Palestine and Athens for Justice in Palestine promoted BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel) at the student involvement fair at the University of Georgia. A student at Northwestern University was told at a recent anti-racism march on campus that she couldn’t support that effort because she supports Israel.

These incidents happened in August and were reported onamchainitiative.org, the website of the AMCHA initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “investigating, documenting, educating about and combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.”

One organization, StandWithUs, offers an internship for high school students to help prepare them for such challenges that they may face on their college campuses, as well as a fellowship that trains student leaders to educate others about Israel on their college campuses and to confront anti-Israel rhetoric.

Two Valley high school students were selected to serve, along with 82 other students from across North America, as StandWithUs high school interns for the upcoming school year:  Ari Cohen, a senior at Chaparral High School in Paradise Valley, and Alli Greenberg, a senior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix.

During the yearlong program, interns create Israel clubs in their schools, bring speakers, write Op-Eds and educate their peers and the community about Israel.

StandWithUs, founded in 2001, is an international, nonprofit Israel education organization that supports people around the world who want to educate their campuses and communities about Israel. Based in Los Angeles, the organization has chapters throughout the U.S., as well as in Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The high school internship started in 2012.

Cohen and Greenberg attended a StandWithUs conference Aug. 8-11 in Los Angeles where they learned how to plan and implement programs, maximize social media reach and to recognize media bias and connect with reporters. They also reviewed Israel’s history and current events, and learned about tools and facts to answer the difficult questions and how to relate their Israel story to various audiences. They will also attend a May conference to wrap up the year.

What surprised Greenberg most about what she learned at the conference was “how much false information exists within the struggles surrounding Israel, and how that information is extremely accessible to the general public.”

Cohen was shocked to learn about the “power the media has in representing Israel to the world.”

“I saw articles where images were completely fabricated, supported with facts that belied the true nature of the conflict,” he said. “I saw television segments where context was not given for Israeli actions, or where the word Palestinian was substituted for terrorist or ‘man with a gun.’ When I read these articles and saw these things, I realized that this is how the rest of the world views Israel and that really shocked me.”

The most meaningful part for Cohen was the presentation on the Palestinian perspective. “Without mutual understanding, there can be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said via email. “Seeing the suffering of Palestinians and their ties to the land really showed me the depth of the conflict and how each side has legitimate claims that make any solution far more complex than you’d think at first.”

Greenberg’s background with Israel includes spending six weeks two summers ago traveling through Israel on a Camp Ramah program, which she calls “the best experience I could have asked for – I got to see the beauty of the country of my people.” She also learned about Israeli culture through Israelis who spent the summer at Camp Ramah during her eight years as a camper there.

Greenberg said that she became a StandWithUs intern “because I want to step outside of my comfort zone and learn even more about the place I’ve learned about at camp and at Hebrew school. … I think StandWithUs is a great place to continue that education and practice through learning how to lead by example.”

At her school, she plans to create the school’s first Israel Club “and to show even more young people that Israel is not just a place for Jews, but that it is a land that all people can love.”

Cohen said that he has a very strong family connection to Israel and has visited many times. “But my knowledge of Israel was limited to its culture and religion,” he told Jewish News. “When I thought about Israel, I imagined falafel and shwarma, not Herzl or the Second Intifada. What StandWithUs gave me was a new perspective, a way to view Israel not only through the lens of its religion, but also through its history, politics and Arab neighbors.”

He said he became a StandWithUs intern because he wants to promote Israel and “make an impact, no matter how large or small,” and hopes “to create a program that brings together both Republicans and Democrats at my school to see Israel as not only a partisan political issue, but also as a legitimate democracy that in many ways is more modern than the United States. I also want to have current Israeli soldiers speak at my school and to host an Israeli culture and film day.”

The program for college students, the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship, founded in 2007 by Los Angeles philanthropists Steve and Rita Emerson, is a year-long program that trains student leaders to educate people about Israel on their college campuses and to confront anti-Israel rhetoric. The 2016-17 Fellowship has 74 participants from 74 colleges throughout the United States and Canada, including Yael Domb at Arizona State University.

Domb attended a conference Aug. 21-25 in Los Angeles that included many sessions similar to those in the high school training, but with an emphasis on the BDS movement, learning about student government and how to collaborate with other campus groups.

As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Domb said that she has always had a connection to Israel. “Growing up, my brother and I were fortunate enough to go to Israel and visit our family in Ramat Hasharon,” she said via email. “Having Israeli parents and speaking Hebrew in our home, it was impossible not to have some sort of connection to Israel, whether it be the land itself, the music, the food, the culture – there are so many things I can connect with.”

Domb, a sophomore at ASU who is majoring in nursing, said that the StandWithUs conference was eye-opening and meaningful. “Every single person in the room had a connection to Israel and was ready to voice their endless love for Israel on their campus,” she said. She was also surprised by the non-Jews there who were a part of the StandWithUs Team. “Their support and love for Israel is incredible!”

She said that thankfully she has not experienced anti-Semitism on the ASU campus, which she credits to the work of the school’s student government.

Programs she plans to bring to the ASU campus are an Israeli film festival  and an Israel 101 course, where students will receive a stipend for taking the course, which is funded by a grant. One upcoming event, set for Nov. 9, will feature Neil Lazarus, an expert in the fields of Middle East politics, public diplomacy and effective communication training. This event will be co-sponsored by Jewish Arizonans on Campus (JAC), the Hillel Jewish Student Center at ASU, SSI (Students Supporting Israel), and ICC (Israel on Campus Coalition), she said.

Greenberg said that at the conference for high school students, she enjoyed hearing other interns and coordinators share stories of their connection to Israel. “What struck me the most was that every story was different, but through our differences, we showed and expressed our passion to create great change in our world today.”

This article first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of Phoenix Jewish News.