Minister Natan Sharansky should be commended for his recent article discussing the imperative for the State of Israel to focus greater attention and resources on a major issue facing North American Jewry: Israel's image on university campuses. As students across North America are working hard to promote Israel on campus, they are not only battling against sophisticated anti-Israel propaganda, but also against an even larger obstacle of apathy amongst fellow Jewish students.
While Minister Sharansky's call for government support is important, Jewish students realize that they don't have the luxury to wait for the State of Israel to act. Israel is a country today in crisis. It must devote an incongruent amount of time and resources to the various crises it faces -- namely the two-front battle against terrorism and a failing economy. Under pressures and constraints that few other countries in the world face, it is understandable that Israel's resources are not always allocated to public relations.
Who has greater insight on how to reach out to students on campus today -- an Israeli government official or a fellow student?
In addition, it is a false assumption that officials of the State of Israel will be the most effective representatives. Who has greater insight on how to reach out to students on campus today -- an Israeli government official or a fellow student? What will be more effective in engaging students on campus -- another speaker that students have little time or interest to hear or conversations between students at lunch, in the classroom and in the quad? In addition, even if speakers were an effective method of engaging students, they mainly consist of a one-time event. This pales in comparison to the daily activism that students on campuses can employ. The answer is clear -- students themselves are by far the most effective representatives on campuses, communicating Israel's message in an powerful and convincing manner.
Because students are the most effective spokespeople for Israel's public relations on campus, the Hasbara Fellowships of Aish HaTorah has been training students for the last two years in Israeli activism on campus. Hasbara Fellowships has brought over 450 top Jewish university students to Israel for extensive education and activism training, making it the largest, and most in-depth, activism training program of its kind.
Since students are the key to Israel's image on campus, the pro-Israel community must provide them with the tools and confidence to succeed. On Hasbara Fellowships, participants hear from top experts in Jewish and Israeli history, learn about current issues and how to deconstruct common misconceptions and claims against Israel. They learn how to effectively communicate for Israel in a pro-active manner -- concentrating on the messages the pro-Israel community wants to communicate instead of being sidetracked by the messages and efforts of anti-Israel activists on campus. Students learn to communicate Israel's longstanding willingness to compromise for peace. They learn to communicate Israel's unique status as a Middle Eastern nation that protects human rights and encourages democracy. They learn to convincingly communicate Israel's lack of a current partner for peace. Most importantly, Hasbara Fellows learn how to communicate these messages through programming, campaigns, articles in campus newspapers and through simple everyday conversations.
A prime example of programming back on campus initiated by Hasbara Fellows was the Mock Israeli Elections, educating students about Israel's unique democratic system through an engaging activity. Thousands of students across North America learned about the wide-spectrum of voices within Israel and cast a vote for their preference.
Minister Sharansky and the State of Israel certainly do need to allocate any available resources to the battle waging today for Israel's image on university campuses in North America. They should be congratulated for making this a priority in a time when so many other issues are pulling at her. But any support given must first be allocated to giving students the confidence, information and tools to be the front-line activists that we need them to be.