Jerusalem: Sitting in a converted bomb shelter in the basement of the hotel at the Ramat Rachel Kibbutz here, about 40 American Jewish college students are sharing their anxiety.
Like a group therapy session, they talk about their frustration, fear and anger over the recent rising levels of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments on their campuses by pro-Palestinian activists, as violence continues unabated in the Middle East.
"Not a day goes by that I’m not upset by something anti-Semitic on campus," confides Adam Tichler, a serious, thin, 20-year-old junior at UCLA with a buzz cut. "We’re vocal, but the whole school is against us."
"Every day there’s something," adds Nathaniel Tishman, a round, bearded senior at San Francisco State University, the scene of a disturbing incident last month when anti-Israel Arab students physically intimidated Jewish students during a pro-Israel rally.
They were among about 350 students representing universities from Florida to California and Texas to Toronto, who were flown here this week by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. They are part of an emergency Israel solidarity mission: the first ever sponsored by the national group.
But the Hillel mission has a more ambitious purpose: equipping Jewish students with crucial education and other resources in a coming battle for the hearts and minds of college students over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hillel this week launched a proactive advocacy-training program to teach students to counter an expected well-organized and well-financed anti-Israel campus campaign when classes resume next fall.
Pro-Palestinian forces have made no secret of their plans to step up their anti-Israel activities in September, including pushing for divestiture or lobbying university officials to withdraw financial investments in Israel, a tactic used successfully used to force South Africa to abandon apartheid in the 1980s.
The anti-Israel activists demand that Israel immediately withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Many of them condone the suicide bombings of innocent Israeli citizens as a legitimate tool in the current struggle and use virulent anti-Semitic slogans and Holocaust imagery to censure the Jewish state.
The students in the hotel basement room also decried their campus newspapers as bastions of anti-Israel stories and editorials, and complained some university professors are encouraging students to protest against Israel.
"The Palestinians are open in saying they are building momentum on campus," said Hillel president Richard Joel, who spearheaded this week’s quickly assembled advocacy mission with support from the AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities.
Footing the $300,000 tab were a group of five noted Jewish philanthropists including World Jewish Congress chairman Edgar Bronfman, Tulsa philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, Hillel board member Michael Steinhardt, Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Ron Lauder and Leonard Abramson.
Students paid $250 to participate, with $180 to be earmarked for their local Jewish federation’s Israel emergency fund. The students had to promise to return to their campuses to support Israel in September.
Joel called the unprecedented advocacy mission "a full-court press looking primarily to next year to support and provoke pro-Israel advocacy on campus.
"We think we are in the vanguard of Jewish coalitions and organizations that want to be smart in assisting students expressing their passion for Israel," Joel said Tuesday.
Joel insisted the goal is to educate Jewish and non-Jewish college students, and refrain from the hateful sloganeering exhibited by some pro-Palestinian advocates: including some whom display posters saying, "The only thing wrong with Hitler is he didn’t finish the job," reported several students.
Students enthusiastically welcomed the idea of getting a free four-day trip to Israel to learn history, plan practical strategies, perform some volunteer hospital work and network.
Most of the group was booked for four or five days. Some were staying for an extra week intensive training, and an elite smaller group planned to stay for three weeks.
Many students said they were not equipped to challenge the virulent anti-Israel charges leveled by pro-Palestinian students groups.
Rob Fineman, a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans, said he applied to the mission because he wanted to be able to go back to school and speak out in a more articulate manner. "I don’t know enough," he said.
"I’m not very well equipped to deal with it and this will help a lot," said SFSU’s Tishman.
"You should learn as much as you can and be able to back and share the real truth about this amazing place that belongs to you and to all the Jewish people," former Hadassah president Marlene Post told the students during a welcoming tree-planting ceremony at the Jewish National Fund forest Monday morning.
Not every campus experienced the same level of anti-Semitism activities last year, a survey of students found.
While students at Oberlin College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UCLA and Hunter College in Manhattan reported disturbing verbal confrontations, students at Baruch College in New York, the University of Rhode Island, and Hofstra University on Long Island said tensions were relatively calm.
Even the growth of anti-Israel rhetoric into anti-Judaism by Arab student groups was experienced differently on different campuses.
For example, Aviva Kiefer, a Hillel student official from Rutgers University in New Jersey, said, "Anti-Israel and anti-Judaism have melded into each other."
Dikla Tuchman, a junior at SFSU, said that in the last three months, the anti-Israel rhetoric at her campus gradually became anti-Judaism.
"Definitely," she said. "Two minutes into a conversation they say, ëI wish you Jews would die.’ It’s happening in Europe, and all over the world and it’s just accepted."
But Paul Boyer, a senior at Arizona State University, said the exchanges between Jewish and Arab groups at his campus have been generally civil, and the anti-Israel rhetoric has been political, not ethnic.
There was concerned discussion among a few students about being indoctrinated and whether they would have benefited from getting a Palestinian viewpoint rather than learning from Israeli experts. But Joel insisted this is not a broad fact-finding mission but a specific effort to educate students to advocate for Israel.
The Hillel students were from varied backgrounds. Many male teens wore kipas, while some did not. Some girls wore long angle skirts identified with Orthodoxy, while others wore tank tops, jeans or shorts.
Security was tight at the hotel movement was somewhat restricted.
Student autonomy was limited because of heightened security fears; while traveling to a mission stop on the first day, it was learned that a suicide bomber had killed two and wounded dozens in Petach Tikva 20 miles away, causing many students to rush for two available hotel pay phones to assure their parents they were OK.
But wherever they went (to Hadassah Hospital to visit terrorist victims, to Mt. Herzl national cemetery to clean up gravesites, or to the Knesset to hear leading politicians) the students were profusely thanked by various Israeli officials for coming to the troubled nation during the current crisis with the Palestinians.
"It means a lot to all of us and it shows we are really one people," said Dr. David Zangan of Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, who said it brought tears to his eyes.
But there was also learning sessions inside the hotel, located only a few miles from Bethlehem, where only days before Palestinian terrorist gunmen took over the Church of the Nativity, where the faithful believe Jesus was born, and took priests hostage for weeks capturing worldwide attention.
They met with academics, military spokesmen and journalists. Several high-level Israeli officials canceled or declined to make time in their schedules.
The titles of briefing sessions included "Jewish Links to the Land of Israel" taught by Dr. David Bernstein, dean of Machon Pardes, an interdenominational education center; "Israel’s Right of Defense, Security, Viability" by two Foreign Ministry experts; "The Wars of Israel and their Effect on the Current Situation"; and "The Change in Israeli Opinion over the Last 19 Months," by Jerusalem Report managing editor David Horovitz, who confirmed that Israelis are fed up with PLO leader Yasir Arafat as a viable peace partner.
They broke up into smaller sessions to discuss strategies, discussing how to gather intelligence about the anti-Israel activity on their campuses, how to set goals, and building coalitions with other student groups and reach out to uninvolved Jewish students.
The students also heard from Nachman Shai, former press secretary for the Israeli Defense Forces best known to Israel for his calming broadcast voice during the Persian Gulf War.
In no-nonsense remarks, Shai talked about the devastating economic and psychological effects on Israel from the suicide bombings. He said unavoidable limitations in television reporting on the current crisis skews the story and takes it out of context, showing viewers Israeli tanks attacking Palestinians, while not being able to also show suicide bombers. He appealed to the students to learn the full story ó dating back to 1948 when Arabs first attacked a newly born Israel ó and "tell that story wherever you go."
Shai also blasted Arafat stating: "What does Arafat want? He wants the entire Eretz Yisrael. The dream is still there … the notion of having the entire Palestine is still in their books and in their minds.
"He [Arafat] already has a Palestinian state. A Palestinian state exists."
One of the highlights of the week came when Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister for diaspora affairs, energized an audience of more than 400 Tuesday giving a passionate and reasoned appeal for a compromise solution with a viable peace partner.
He criticized Israel’s occupation causing suffering for Palestinians, but at the same time denounced the child sacrifices on the Palestinians in form of teenage suicide bombers.
"In Judaism, more important that the sanctity of land is the sanctity of human beings," Rabbi Melchior declared. "The other side is telling us sanctity is blowing up humans."
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