Ten-day tour provides resources for Israel advocates on North American college campuses
By ELIANNA MINTZ
We were 26 college students, two chaperones and a tour guide aboard five rafts floating down the fabled Jordan River. On the eighth day of a 10-day tour, we wanted to make the most of our short time left in Israel.
Prior to the river rafting, we had hiked through a pitch-black water tunnel in the City of David, visited Independence Hall, relaxed at the Tel Aviv beach, toured the Golan Heights Winery, and much more. The sun was always shining, and there was a steady breeze keeping us cool and content. At night we explored the Jerusalem nightlife scene, which was overflowing with young Israelis, Birthright tour groups, and those few yeshiva students who remained in Israel after their gap year. Thumping, upbeat music reverberated in our ears; and the air was filled with the sweet, fruity aroma of tobacco smoke from hookas. Everyone around us was in hearty spirits. Israel was our utopia.
While we certainly spent ample time touring the land, we were not a typical student group exploring Israel’s captivating attractions. We were a group of students with a common cause: to learn more about Israel in order to defend it on our campuses back home.
The trip — “a crash course in Israel advocacy,” in the words of first-year Baruch College graduate student Netanel Benisti — was organized by the Committee for the Accuracy of Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA.)
CAMERA, which is best known for its press monitoring work, also supports students who want to be strong Israel advocates on their campuses.
CAMERA’s Israel trip, the organization’s fifth tour of the Jewish state, includes past and future CAMERA campus fellows who have the foundational knowledge of the Middle East conflict, but are ready to take their knowledge to the next level for enhanced comprehension.
When students are brought around Israel, “they can see the relevant issues with their own eyes so they can better combat the anti-Israel sentiments on their own campuses,” explained Gilead Ini, senior research analyst for CAMERA, who chaperoned the trip.
“There is no replacement for seeing things firsthand, and living it and experiencing it directly,” he added. “Through the learning experience of this trip, students gain the tools to continue their activism even after graduation.”
And that is exactly why I applied for the CAMERA trip. As a student at Barnard College, Columbia University, I am faced with biases against Israel on a daily basis. Traversing College Walk, I constantly see Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) theatrically characterizing Israel as the devil. They beat students with fake guns to “recreate” checkpoints in Israel, and place fake Israeli tanks that shoot innocent civilians in the middle of the campus.
But it’s not just students who express blatantly anti-Zionist sentiments. Columbia professors intimidate pro-Israel students by using the classroom as a platform for propounding their anti-Israel views. Students dare not defend Israel for fear that it will affect their grade.
The overall climate was so strongly anti-Israel that I wanted to do something to change it. I joined LionPac, one of the pro-Israel groups on campus, and started working for the Israel Campus Beat, a newspaper dedicated to Israel advocacy on campuses across North America.
But there was still more to be done. I needed more information to be able to properly defend Israel on campus; CAMERA was the perfect solution.
In Israel, we met with more than a dozen government officials, academics, and representatives of research institutions. We were briefed on Israel’s history, security concerns and public relations issues. There were discussions of the Iranian nuclear threat; Arab and Jewish refugees; and life in Sderot, the Negev town under the barrage of rockets coming from Gaza.
We were taken on a geopolitical tour of Jerusalem with former Jerusalem city planner Israel Kimhi, and saw conditions for the city’s Arab inhabitants. We even visited a portion of the security fence to learn how the IDF accommodates the inconveniences it creates for the Palestinians and its strategic importance for Israeli security.
As a result, when we receive criticism from students on campus for Israel’s supposed apartheid wall, we can respond with explanations from our firsthand experience.
“By actually going to places where Israel’s events occurred and learning extensively about them, I have learned how to better promote Israel’s message,” said Ahuva Sunshine, a sophomore at the University of Maryland. “I know that I will be putting on more educational events on campus as a result.”
Avi Egron, a second-year pharmacy school student at the University of Buffalo, lived in Israel throughout his childhood and served in the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. But Egron said this trip taught him a lot about Israel.
“Yes, I lived in Israel, but I had not visited many of the sites that CAMERA took us to,” he said. “I learned so much more about Israel that I am now more prepared and confident to speak up on campus.”
And this was a key goal of the trip: for participants to become more confident advocating on campus for Israel’s right to exist.
“When you are in a campus environment, you start to think maybe Israel is in the wrong,” said Rutgers senior Noah Glyn. “But this trip has fortified my feelings about Israel and has given me more self confidence to advocate rather than apologize. Israel is not perfect, but I don’t need to apologize for that. Israel has the right to defend itself.”
And the place where Israel requires the most defense is on college campuses.
“The most outspoken terrorists against Israel are college students who know nothing of what they speak,” said Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, founder of Our Soldiers Speak, an organization of Israeli soldiers who travel around the world informing students about what really goes on in the IDF. “They are the newest foe and we need each and every college student to help us defend Israel. We come from Israel and our future is tied to it. We can never stop fighting for it.”
The CAMERA trip provided us with a deeper appreciation and love of advocating for Israel. We returned armed with facts and a love of the land. Nothing can stop us now.
Elianna Mintz is an editorial intern at the American Jewish World.
(American Jewish World, 7.22.11)
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