When protesters heckled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly in New Orleans, the adults in the audience may have been surprised or even shocked. Many of the students in the 600-strong Hillel presence had a different reaction.
The pro-Israel activist students remembered the heckling of Israeli Amb. Michael Oren’s speech at UC-Irvine last February, which went viral on YouTube. Others were reminded of their struggles against student groups advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions against companies that do business with Israel. Campus visits by well-known anti-Israel advocates, such as Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer, also came to mind.
For many adults at the GA, exposure to groups supporting the delegitimization of Israel may be rare. For the GA student delegation, however, exposure to varying levels of this phenomenon is commonplace. On campus the threat of delegitimization is real. Students are either confronting it directly or live under the threat that it will show up in one form or another. It has become more important than ever to be equipped with the tools to distinguish between groups critical of Israeli policy and groups who are engaged in an assault on Israel’s legitimacy.
The GA provided an opportunity for students from a variety of backgrounds and levels of commitment to be exposed to a remarkable array of speakers who articulated a clear pro-Israel agenda: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and many more. The students drew strength and guidance from the adults on hand, and from one another in our own struggles on campus.
Opportunities such are these are important. The organized Jewish community believes that the younger generation is less engaged with Israel than they were. They fear that we are too removed from the historical moments they lived through. We didn’t live during the time that the State of Israel was established. We didn’t march on Washington for the Soviet Jewry. We are too young to remember the despair following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
We are not only different from our parents and our grandparents regarding our exposure to Israel, our campus experience forces us to be different in our approach.
The college campus is a place where the First Amendment is revered and where students delight in experimenting with the novelty of this right.
We favor the open discussion of all issues on campus across the ideological spectrum as long as that discussion is conducted civilly. That is why many of the pro-Israel students at the GA objected to the confrontational way that the anti-Netanyahu protesters spoke out – and how they were handled – but defended their right to be heard.
We understand that radicalism does not win the hearts and minds of the uninformed and uninvolved young people on campus who comprise the majority of students. And when Hillel President Wayne Firestone asked a room packed with students how many had Muslim friends, almost every hand was raised. When you eat, sleep, play and study in a multicultural environment civility is essential.
We are a generation that is up for grabs when it comes to Israel. While a nucleus has been exposed to Israel through day schools, supplemental religious schools, camps, youth groups and Israel trips, many more have little Jewish background and even less understanding of the complexities of the Middle East. These students need opportunities to hear from pro-Israel speakers, to experience Israeli culture and to travel to Israel.
One of my fellow GA participants, Duke student Samantha Tropper, blogged that she became much more involved with Jewish life on campus and defending Israel since returning from a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
The GA, she wrote, was an eye-opening experience: “I had no idea there would be more than 600 Hillel students at the GA, students very similar to me. I know I have had a remarkably different Jewish experience than most of the people at that event, but for all of us, I believe, our Jewish journey is still continuing.”
Rachel Racoosin is a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.