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Becoming a Student Advocate for Israel

Becoming a Student Advocate for Israel

With some basic knowledge of the dimensions of the Middle East conflict, any student can speak out on campus.

by Jeremy Gillick

Within a few weeks of arriving at Wesleyan University last fall, I was informed by my otherwise knowledgeable classmates that the world's Jewish population exceeds one billion, that Israel is larger than England, and that Jews rule America. One afternoon, I attempted to enter the Campus Center -- only to be obstructed by Students for Palestine allegedly simulating an Israeli checkpoint. At a Free Palestine activist conference, speakers distributed flyers contending that Jews conspire to run the world, that Israel and America staged the September 11 attacks, and that Israel controls the United States.

Unfortunately, Wesleyan is not unique. At many liberal arts colleges and universities, students and professors alike take pride in demonizing Israel. Small groups of radicals impact the whole campus. Even among students who have little knowledge of the Middle East conflict, many accept the charge that Israel is a brutal colonial regime, needlessly oppressing the indigenous Palestinians.

So I returned home to Boston this summer determined to help refocus campus discussion. Last week, I joined 29 other freshmen and sophomores at a 5-day training session hosted by the Boston based David Project, a group that promotes a fair and honest understanding of the Middle East Conflict.

An honest advocate for Israel, we learned, should focus on three things: defending Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, safeguarding Israel from the double standard to which it is so often subjected, and reaching out to those who would otherwise remain silent.

The training session, led by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, began by examining the conventional assumptions regarding the conflict. Three dimensions of the Middle East Conflict merit reframing: The physical realm, in which conventional wisdom holds that the conflict is simply an Israeli-Palestinian one; the historical realm, where conventional wisdom holds that the conflict began with the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967; and the moral realm, where Israel's "Western" status becomes a justification for the application of double standards and for unfairly and disproportionately singling it out for moral scrutiny.

By "reframing" and examining the broader context, we developed a framework for understanding the Middle East conflict. Physically, the conflict is regional, not local; historically, the conflict predates the occupation and even the establishment of Israel -- its roots lie in continuous Arab rejection of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East; morally, all countries must be held to the same standards-the world's integrity must be questioned when the international community denounces Israel for human rights violations while Sudan and Ethiopia massacre their citizens, while the slave-trade runs rampant in Sudan, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates and through parts Central America, South America and East Asia, and while Egypt, Iraq, Syria and others oppress their substantial Christian minorities.

With ARM, we address accusations directly, reframe them in terms of the bigger picture, and send a message about the conflict's root causes.

We also learned a key technique -- dubbed ARM -- for engaging in constructive conversations in a hostile environment. With ARM, we address accusations directly, reframe them in terms of the bigger picture, and send a message about the conflict's root causes. I was challenged to respond to a commonly heard accusation on campus: "The occupation is the cause of terrorism."

My response: "This is a common misconception. Terrorists have been targeting Israel since long before the occupation. Hundreds of Israeli civilians died in the 1950s as a result of terrorism. In fact, terrorist attacks on Jews in what is now Israel began long before Israel's establishment. In 1929, Haj Amin Al-Husseini incited Arab mobs to massacre over 60 Jews in Hebron. For occupation to end, the Palestinian Authority must recognize Israel's right to exist, condemn terrorism, and put an end to incitement in schools and mosques."

ARM responses are effective because they shift the burden of proof onto the accuser. Not only does ARM help counter the small but vocal group of anti-Israel extremists, but it also enables the silent majority on campus to speak. Many non-active students, particularly Jews, feel strongly about Israel. Yet they are reluctant to speak out due to a lack of knowledge, intimidation, and the false perception that being pro-Israel contradicts their liberal values. With some basic knowledge of the dimensions of the Middle East conflict, any student can speak out, especially with ARM at their disposal. And by appreciating Israel as a liberal democracy, progressive students can overcome intimidation from both professors and students, and can support Israel without feeling conflicted.

As I prepare to return to Wesleyan in September, I am confident that we can affect the overall impression of Israel on campuses. Even apolitical Jewish students heading to college should consider attending David Project training sessions. We can truly alter the opinions of our classmates, many of whom know little about Jews or Israel, and most of whom remain impressionable.

We may just be undergraduates, but we should think about how our current actions will affect our future. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

This article originally appeared on

August 7, 2004

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 6

(6) GeraldDubow, November 15, 2006 12:43 AM

Suiside Bombers in Iraq

When Palestinians teach their children to hate and kill. If they would teach productive things there wouldn't be suiside bombers.

(5) Dennis M. Starkman, August 30, 2004 12:00 AM

A tip to be thankful for

Your article is specially valuable since it allows others an insight into techniques and approaches which can be used if no back-up or organized support is available, and at the same time, mentions the David Project as an option which may be actually seeked for help.

I disagree only on one point as a Jew from a Central American country, since I have not become aware of any slave-trade going on in this part of the world. Although the point on moral double-standards is valid, the facts might not be always accurate.

Congratulations, anyways, and thank you for your tips.

(4) Anonymous, August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Anyone who wants to look at the Palestinian issue should see that they hurt themselves when they teach their children to hate and kill. If they would teach their children productive things, there wouldn't be suiside bombers. There are a small number of moderate Palestinians, but the arab radicals ruin things for the moderates.

(3) Dina Pirutinsky, August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

I know what it's like

Hi Jeremy,

I feel sorry that I am able to say this, but I know precisely what you're speaking about. I go to Hunter College where the anti-Israel sentiment is so rampant that anti-semitism is not even considered politically incorrect. As a matter of fact, the party that controlled our undergraduate student government for the past SEVEN years is called SLAM--student liberation action movement and part of their platform was that they're anti-Israel. (This past year another party, Hunter United, beat SLAM for the student gov. next year and Hunter United was started by one of our biggest Israel activists!) After my first two weeks at Hunter I ran for president of our Israel activism club and now that my first year is over and the Grinspoon Intern of last year (the girl who founded Hunter United) graduated, I'm going to be our Grinspoon Intern--kind of like the coordinator of Israel related events for the Hillel. But anyway, I think that your school has ties with AIPAC, an organization that is not only amazing for Israel in American politics, but for Israel and Jewish students on campuses in America. I'm sure that your school has an Israel activism group, and if they don't it probably won't take much to set one up if you go to your Hillel and try.
I also wanted to point out that something I find very helpful when engaged in a discussion with someone about Israel is to try to give a very strong message of "check your facts." I know that I'm safe--what I tell someone will check because I'm telling truthful facts--but very often people who are coming from the anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian side exaggerate or present opinion as fact, so if I teach someone just how important checking facts are I know that I don't have to run after everyone at school explaining things when the Justice in Palestine club puts up flyers about Israel because if they know to be skeptical of what they read, they'll do my job themselves!
And most importantly: what they stress at AIPAC is that you be proactive instead of reactive. It's more effective to engage in a conversation about Israel with two people a day than it is to hold a counter-rally.

Best of luck!

(2) Bonnie, August 9, 2004 12:00 AM

I've been hungry...

....for reliable information to learn and share about Israel in the area that I live, so I joined Bridges for Peace recently. Lo and behold, when I went to the website for the David Project, the logo was familiar and I realized that I had received a disc from BFP of "Understanding the Middle East Conflict", but simply had not gotten that far in my packet of info to connect with it yet. The desire of my heart is to represent Israel knowledgeably and to encourage those I meet to "Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem" and to know how to be a true friend to her. Your article was a timely inspiration to me....and it shows me how G-d moves among us and that many of us from different backgrounds have the same goal.

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