Pro-Israel students run the gauntlet

I recently was invited to speak at a conference at the University of Michigan co-sponsored by the Hillel Foundation and a number of other organizations.

As I entered the building, I was met by protesters holding anti-Israel signs and a few dressed apparently as Israeli soldiers with cardboard guns who were manning the “checkpoint” you had to pass through. As I walked past, I stepped on something, which I overheard one of the protesters say was a “land mine.”

This is just one of several campuses where students have faced harassment to get to class or attend pro-Israel events. The good news is that even as students are feeling besieged by the weight of anti-Israel groups and speakers, they are fighting back.

Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are sending me to campuses around the country as part of their efforts to educate and motivate students. The Michigan event was one of many around the country that demonstrate the commitment to Israel that does exist among students.

The Michigan students raised enough money to bring in a number of prominent speakers to run concurrent workshops on topics that included the peace process, U.S.-Israel relations, the U.N. and Israel, and women’s rights in Israel. The event was well attended and Jewish students were interested, engaged and passionate. Unlike most other campuses I’ve visited, the Jewish activists at Michigan felt they had the upper hand over their critics.

It has been a pleasant surprise to see the attendance at my lectures, which I attribute less to my limited appeal than to the tireless efforts of students and staff at the Hillels, Israel action groups and AIPAC professionals and campus liaisons.

Craving for knowledge

At my alma mater, the University of California-Santa Barbara, for example, I was told they had the biggest crowd the staff had ever seen for a student event in the lecture hall where I spoke. At Cornell, it was standing room only. Just last week, the room in the Hillel Foundation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was overflowing.

Again, I don’t think the crowds had anything to do with me, but had everything to do with the craving for knowledge of Jewish students and the recruitment efforts of the organizers.

What I hope to accomplish with my talks is to show students that there is a strong case to be made for Israel. Too many of them have the ivory tower attitude that there are not only two sides to every story, but they are equally valid. I try to disabuse them of this notion when it comes to much of the rhetoric in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I also welcome the critical questions. I am gratified that, so far, no one has disrupted my talks. Critics have been respectful, even while asking challenging and sometimes outrageous questions. (In Madison, I was asked about Israel’s policy of “ethnic cleansing.”)

I hope that by answering these critics I demonstrate to the students that there are answers to tough questions, and that they can stand up confidently and give them without rancor. I also let them know it is all right to acknowledge that Israel is imperfect and not every policy needs to be defended.

I regret that I am usually asked only to give a talk on the current situation rather than spend additional time teaching the tachlis of activism. I enjoy spending time with the activists and hearing from them about the problems on campus and the issues they have the most difficulty addressing.

I have spoken to Hillel about establishing a question-answer section on its web site where students could write in to get answers to their political questions, many of which are already answered in American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise’s online edition of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”

I hope we can build a FAQ list from the questions so students will have a place to get responses to their concerns. In the meantime, I field dozens of these inquires via e-mail from users of the Jewish Virtual Library.

We’d all like to see more students educated and involved, but let’s not undervalue the efforts of the few and the proud who are fighting the good fight. The problem is not that nothing is being done to help them, it is that more help is needed.

We should take pride in the Jewish students who are running those anti-Israel gauntlets and do what we can to aid AIPAC, Hillel, CAMERA, Hadassah, the Jewish National Fund and all the rest of the Jewish organizations to make it easier for them.