Hillels prepare to answer anti-Israel campus forces

Adam Naftalin-Kelman doesn’t know what anti-Israel activists at U.C. Berkeley have planned for this academic year.

But the Berkeley Hillel executive director knows something is coming.

That’s why he joined other Hillel directors around the country at a recent national conference. They came together to map a strategy for competing with well-organized anti-Israel forces on campus.

“I would be naive not to expect anything,” Naftalin-Kelman said. “I’m sure there will be some activity, as there is any year.”

The last academic year was especially tense at U.C. Berkeley, with the narrow defeat of a student-led nonbinding resolution to have the university divest from Israel.

This year, Naftalin-Kelman has a few plans of his own. In terms of proactive pro-Israel programming, Hillel will increase its “tabling,” or presence on campus quads and plazas. The booths and tables are for “students looking to connect Jewishly,” he says, “students who might see anti-Israel booths and might be looking for that Jewish booth.”

With classes at Cal beginning Thursday, Aug. 26, Hillel also has lined up what Naftalin-Kelman calls a “strong docket of speakers … all of which are committed to Israel.” He says he must await final confirmation before announcing the names of the speakers.

The Berkley Hillel strategies mirror plans across the country. Some 300 Jewish college students met Aug. 11-15 at Washington University in St. Louis at the Hillel Institute, a summer training session designed to help them prepare for Jewish engagement work on campus.

A big part of that work was learning how to respond effectively to anti-Israel actions on campus.

Anti-Israel activity has been on the rise on North American campuses for several years, but pro-Israel activists say last year was different: The new campaigns are better organized, more prevalent and more vitriolic.

This summer, a number of national Jewish organizations held training sessions to help students and staff prepare for what is expected to be an even more targeted anti-Israel campaign during the 2010-11 school year.

“In the Jewish community there’s a lot of fear and anxiety, and that lands on our campuses, on our students,” said Hillel President Wayne Firestone at the gathering’s Aug. 11 plenary session.

“We have seen things on campus, last semester in particular, that are really ugly,” he said. “We can imagine what we’ll face when we return this fall.”

Whereas past years might have involved handfuls of anti-Israel students passing out photocopied flyers, last year saw a high-tech traveling exhibit of Israel’s security barrier, complete with a plasma TV showing images that could be seen as anti-Israel.

As part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, efforts to bring resolutions calling for divestment from companies doing business with Israel reached more than half a dozen campuses — a new tactic in the anti-Israel movement that targets student governments.

Only one of those proposed resolutions passed, in a nonbinding student body vote at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. But every time such a bill is put forward, Hillel activists say, the charged atmosphere it creates leaves lasting wounds.

Last year, Hillel at Stanford helped thwart such efforts by aligning with “Invest for Peace,” a campus campaign chaired by Jewish and Arab students to promote constructive dialogue. Among its goals is to educate students on the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and enlist support of organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories that work for coexistence.

One measure of its success: No divest-from-Israel bills came before the Stanford student senate last year.

Similarly, at U.C. Santa Cruz, Hillel took part in the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee, which worked to disseminate positive views of Israel. Moreover, an endowed student intern program brought additional pro-Israel voices to the relatively peaceful campus.

At San Francisco State University the fall semester begins Tuesday, Aug. 24. SFSU has long been a hotbed of intense anti-Israel activity. Still, San Francisco Hillel executive director Alon Shalev has seen positive changes of late, thanks to what he considers proper planning and a Jewish student body unafraid to stand up for Israel.

Shalev touts the Israel coalition, made up of students, faculty and community partners, which meets regularly to plan pro-Israel activities on campus. The coalition has contracted an Israel Fellow — this year it’s former Haifa University student Yochai Shavit –– to help educate students, Jewish and non-Jewish, about Israeli culture.

But Shalev and his Hillel colleagues still expect BDS proponents to go on the offensive this school year.

At the Hillel Institute meeting in St. Louis, some 80 Hillel professionals took part in a 24-hour simulation exercise in which they played various roles on a mythical college campus faced with a divestment bill and a boycott of visiting Israeli professors.

The techniques used in the simulation are included in an Israel Advocacy Playbook that Hillel distributed at the conference and plans to give every Hillel campus professional.

“The group that went through this exercise together now has a common language,” said Chicago educator Carl Schrag, who developed and ran the exercise on behalf of the Israel on Campus Coalition. “When BDS [the sanctions campaign] hits — and I presume it will — hopefully they’ll remember they’re not alone.”

Coalition building is key to Israel advocacy work on campus, say those involved in leading such efforts. It shouldn’t come down to Jewish students against the rest of the campus community, they add — and as interfaith efforts increase on more and more campuses, Jewish students should find themselves less isolated.

Allison Sheren, now Hillel program director at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that things were different five years ago when divestment efforts hit her campus when she was a student.

Now she points to a “MuJew” program — a Muslim-Jewish alternative spring break option on her campus that has brought Jewish and Muslim students together on social action projects for the past three years.

“There’s a real focus on dialogue, on partnerships,” Sheren said. “When Israel issues come up, even if there are disagreements, there is discussion.”

Naftalin-Kelman hopes to see Hillel members at U.C. Berkeley increase involvement with two campus interfaith dialogue groups, Bears Breaking Bread and the Interfaith Youth Corps.

Ultimately he wants to see Jewish college students decide for themselves how best to adopt and express a pro-Israel perspective.

“For me, pro-Israel is someone who wants to develop a deep, meaningful, mature, loving relationship with Israel,” he said. “How this is manifested may be different for different people.”

At S.F. State, Shalev believes that process is well under way.

“The students are more comfortable being visible,” he said. “Five years ago I don’t know how willing they would be to wear a [pro-Israel] T-shirt. Today they will. There’s a feeling they don’t want to be pushed around.”

Sue Fishkoff is a JTA staff writer. Dan Pine is a j. staff writer.