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Hillel Promotes Israel Advocacy; Many Diverse Jewish Voices Are Being Heard

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 2001

The Hillel Foundation, which supports Jewish religious activities on the nation's college campuses, has embarked upon a campaign in behalf of Israel as the debate over the Middle East heats up at universities.  

At the Schusterman Hillel International Student Leaders Assembly, a five-day retreat held this summer in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, one full day was devoted to Israel advocacy. Sessions ranged from "Why Are They Saying Those Terrible Things About Israel?" to "The ABCs of Zionist Legitimacy: How To Feel More Secure About Discussing Israel On Campus." Students received packets from Hillel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Hamagshimim, the university movement sponsored by Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization. Materials included basic talking points, responses to common charges against Israel and tips for organizing rallies, vigils and other events. (Washington Jewish Week, Aug. 30, 2001)


In a keynote speech, Lenny-Ben David, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy, told the students they were "on the front lines" of defending Israel. He urged students to write term papers on the history of Israel's right to exist and human rights violations in the Arab world, then use the information to write opinion pieces in their campus newspapers or to speak on campus.  

Giora Becher, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, told the students: "As much as we are counting on our soldiers back in Israel to protect Israel, we are counting on you. You are our soldiers, you are our commandos in the public campaign...."  

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that "Not all of these students seemed comfortable being cheerleaders for Israel. Some said they weren't sure whether to trust the advocacy day materials, and others stressed that they do not support all Israeli policies ... Despite the battering Israel has taken on many campuses this year, few students had much appetite for anti-Palestinian publicity campaigns. When one student asked Ben-David how to spread propaganda about the Palestinians, another student received applause for responding, `conditions should never be so bad that have to lower ourselves to that level.'"  

As tensions between Israel and the Palestinians continue to grow, many diverse points of view have been expressed by American Jewish commentators.  

In a column entitled "How Could A Jew Do That?" Letty Cottin Pogrebin, writing in Moment (Oct. 2001), pointed to reports of human rights violations against Palestinians. She writes: `This is a column about shame I don't usually feel in relation to Jews. Lately, however, a sense of personal and communal shame has overwhelmed me, triggered by news stories from Israel or eyewitness reports from friends who live there. What I've reacted to in each case is an act of cruelty that strikes me as unthinkable, not just because of its inherent heartlessness or severity, but because it was committed by a Jew."  

Pogrebin notes that, "Perhaps the problem is the deeply-held beliefs I was taught as a child: that Jewish behavior is guided by strong moral and ethical imperatives. Jews don't oppress other peoples; Jews empathize with the underdog, having ourselves been oppressed ... Sadly, in the last 12 months, these beliefs have been shaken to the core. Reading about documented Israeli human rights abuses ... I ask myself, Can Jewish people actually be behaving this way? ... Given Israel's unquestionable military superiority — we should be less worried about external enemies than about the internal existential threat to the very essence and meaning of Judaism and the Jewish state. In short, if we stop acting Jewish, are we still Jews?"  

Discussing the failure of the Camp David meeting, which has been blamed on Yasser Arafat for his rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Barak's "generous" offer, Rabbi Michael Lerner, writing in Tikkun (Sept.-Oct. 2001), provides this assessment. "What was offered was not a contiguous state, but a set of cantons divided by Israeli settlements and roads crisscrossing Palestinian land and guarded by the Israeli army ... To understand the picture, imagine that someone takes over your house, lives there for 34 years running your life, and then offers to give you back 90 percent of it. Sounds generous? But then you find that the 10 percent this person wants to still control are the hallways — which means that you can't go from one room to the other without getting their permission. Does this feel like a generous offer? And how about if they asked you to sign an agreement saying that you'd never raise any other issues after this — would you sign that final agreement?"  

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