On Jan. 27, Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and an adviser to six secretaries of state, spoke to arguably the most important people in the American Jewish community. They were not lay leaders, rabbis or presidents of Jewish organizations.
Miller spoke to 250 students from more than 15 universities who were gathered at Brandeis University for the first Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World (bVIEW) conference. Those who came to Brandeis were not ordinary students; they were leaders of organizations, many of which were pro-Israel groups, at their universities. Many of these students represent the next generation of American Jews — those who will be responsible for molding and sustaining the crucial relationship between the U.S. and Israel.
What drew students to the conference was an opportunity to take part in the mission of bVIEW, a grassroots initiative that seeks to bring together students of different political backgrounds to create a new culture surrounding the Israel discussion. This effort makes us of a future-oriented model that empowers students to help create a more productive Israel discussion on campus.
The initiative was founded by five Brandeis students, two Americans and three Israelis who served in the IDF. They were disenchanted with campus Israel programming and the wider conversations regarding Israel. They decided to bring together people who cared about Israel, but who may have different stances and opinions, to participate in a more constructive, inclusive and innovative discussion. The bVIEW movement, and the conference, was the means to create this change.
This approach demands new thinking. It tells students that they can turn the possible into the actual — that they can actually change the Israel discourse on campus. How? According to bVIEW, the first step is to transcend simplistic rhetoric and to depolarize discussions on campus. This model reminds students that their visions can not only affect the Israel discourse on college campuses, but that their words and actions have important consequences on those living in Israel and throughout the Middle East.
During the conference, Miller quoted President John F. Kennedy: “I’m an idealist without illusions.” This was, Miller explained, the way he approached the world and how he saw the Middle East. And it is bVIEW’s mission — to be idealistic but without illusions.
It’s an approach Theodor Herzl used. Herzl was disregarded for his vision of a Jewish state. He was mocked for being a dreamer, but he knew how to create a movement of change. Zionism was not merely a concept of immigration to a small piece of land in the Middle East; it was a revival of a people and a creation of a culture centered on unceasing ambition. bVIEW seeks to replicate such a culture and approach for the Israel dialogue on campus.
This first bVIEW conference was built on informative sessions given by professionals followed by roundtable discussions. Depolarization was the key; students gave their vision for Israel while still listening to other proposals that may have differed drastically from theirs.
Later in the conference, the environment that participants wanted was evident when a student chose to speak about the pressing need for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic, by brokering a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. Shai Bazak, consul general of Israel to New England, didn’t agree with everything this student said, but he listened, and then provided his own explanation of the direction Israel should follow. Similarly, throughout the conference, participants presented differing visions, but the environment always remained conducive to a productive discussion.
At one session, participants heard from Yousef Bashir, a Palestinian from Gaza who was shot by the IDF at age 15. He spoke of his rehabilitation in an Israeli hospital, and when he subsequently chose to follow the path of coexistence and bridge building between Israelis and Palestinians. During other breakout sessions, students were exposed to many narratives, yet the conference did not focus solely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, it centered on various aspects of Israeli society such as domestic issues, diaspora relations and the recent elections. By the conference’s end, 250 students had been trained on how to transfer bVIEW’s vision-oriented mission to their own campuses.
Our generation is yearning for a change, a creation of a new movement that can shift the discourse about Israel to become more creative and constructive. The bVIEW approach is based on the idea that the views of others are crucial in empowering all students, regardless of political affiliation, to envision a reality for the Israel discourse on campus and for the State of Israel. With enough effort we will be able to create a new culture that can take us forward.
Ryan Yuffe, 19, a sophomore at Brandeis University, is co-president of BIPAC (Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee), the only bipartisan pro-Israel group on campus, and helped plan the bVIEW conference and initiative.