For six happy years, I had the privilege of teaching journalism to the whip-smart kids of Write On for Israel.
A pro-Israel advocacy-training program for high school and college students, WOFI graduated more than 120 young people from its ranks before it ended in 2014 (see sidebar). Ever since, I’ve wondered whether we achieved our goal of preparing students to push back against anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Or, if nothing else, helped them better understand the complexities of Israel’s strategic predicament.
Last week I checked in with several alumni I worked with to see how the program impacted them and how their views of Israel have evolved. It turns out they are all over the map, both physically and politically.
From day one I could tell Ian Hoffman was a smart cookie. The Berkeley teen wasn’t the most outspoken student in the 2010 WOFI cohort, but when he did weigh in, his words counted.
Even at 16, Ian was not necessarily buying what WOFI was selling. He told me at times we made him feel “a little like I was a body to be used for the purpose of defending Israel. I wanted to be presented with all the information.”
Ian graduated this year from Swarthmore with a degree in English literature. I asked him whether WOFI helped him navigate the Israeli-Palestinian divide on his Pennsylvania campus.
“I do feel slightly more pro-Israel than the average college student,” he said. “Some of that has to do with WOFI, some to do with having family in Israel and feeling [Israel] is a little demonized. As much as I think that’s true, I have trouble going to the other extreme of ‘Israel is always right.’ I know there are messed-up things going on.”
In that same 2010 cohort, during our trip to Israel Julia Price used to tease me about my white knee socks. She was right. They were pretty dorky.
I loved Julia’s sass, and she appreciated my help with her writing. For her, WOFI was a positive experience. “WOFI gave me a place to learn and grow and question my beliefs with an amazing group of peers,” she told me.
Though she grew up in a Zionist household in Pleasanton, and fit in with WOFI’s pro-Israel perspective, Julia remembers being challenged by the program.
“I was encouraged to question my thinking and to make arguments, as long as I properly backed them up,” she said. “I don’t think WOFI was biased. It was an extremely important program that gave me a unique opportunity to learn about Israel, its history, its people and the conflict.”
Her most memorable experience was our visit to Sderot, situated a mile from Gaza and one of the Israeli towns most targeted by Hamas. Stepping inside a bomb shelter shocked Julia, as did meeting a resident who had lost a daughter in a rocket attack.
“[We] asked why he would choose to stay in Sderot, where something so terrible had happened to his family,” Julia told me. “He said, ‘Hamas took away my family. I am not going to let them take away my home.’ His response was representative of my interactions with all other Israelis. They are all full of life, energy, passion and, most of all, resilience.”
By her sophomore year at U.C. Santa Barbara, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement had arrived. Julia, now 22, remembers attending a 12-hour campus debate on BDS that devolved into what she called “a racial-class fight.”
“There was so much tension that the mediator started crying,” Julia said. “WOFI prepared me immensely for this conflict. It had given me the knowledge to understand the impact BDS could have on the perception of Israel, which is why I got involved. When I was speaking with people at my school who were talking negatively of Israel, I was able to counter them and back my arguments up with facts.”
Julia graduated from Santa Barbara this year with a degree in psychology. Though she opposes Israel’s presence in the West Bank and disapproves of new settlement construction, she considers herself an Israel supporter.
“WOFI made me realize the critical moment we are in regarding Israel’s perception in American media,” she said, “and how we need to become more supportive of Israel if Israel is to continue to survive.”
In WOFI, we did focus on the pro-Israel narrative. Jonathan Carey, who oversaw the organization in the Bay Area, told students they could access the Palestinian narrative elsewhere — WOFI was about Israeli advocacy.
Under the direction of lead educator Pini Altman, a brilliant Middle East scholar, students learned Israeli history going back to Ottoman times. In class and in Israel, students heard from guest speakers, most of them emphasizing the Israeli narrative while minimizing the Palestinian account.
That didn’t go over with some students, then or now.
“Through our seminars I remember thinking this was par for the course learning Israeli history,’” recalled Ava Feldman, part of the first WOFI cohort in 2009. “My thinking switched once we got to Israel. We went to a Palestinian village and I remember thinking there was a distinct discrepancy here, because we had also walked around Israeli neighborhoods. I called my mom and said this village is so obviously poorer. And I remember thinking, why aren’t we talking about that?”
The Walnut Creek native especially enjoyed our visit to the homes of Israeli Arabs in the town of Taibe, where we were treated to tea, cookies and honest conversation.
“That was probably the most important part of the trip,” Ava said. “I remember thinking we should be doing more of this.”
Though WOFI’s stated goal was to gird students for anti-Israel foment at college, Ava found no protests, no BDS and only a small contingent of pro-Palestinian activists at the University of Oregon, where she majored in sociology.
She connected with Hillel, and her views on the Middle East evolved dramatically as she researched the conflict.
“I was blindsided by how little I knew,” she said. “I like being Jewish and I have always been involved in the Jewish community. So constantly having to reconcile how I feel about Israel is probably the biggest struggle. As a historically marginalized group, the Jewish community should have more empathy and consideration for the Palestinians.”
Quoting a pundit she read, Ava said American Jews have outsourced their identity to Israel.
“Can you have a deep understanding of a country you’ve only visited for 10 days?” she wondered. “I see [American] kids joining the IDF and I think, is that really your battle to fight? I admire their energy, their convictions, I just think it’s slightly misplaced.”
Today she questions the stability of Israeli democracy.
“In the United States, with the Sandy Hook shooter, we did not bulldoze his house,” Ava said. “I don’t think that would happen in a democracy. Palestinians are under the authority of the Israeli army and Israeli politicians they did not vote for. That doesn’t scream democracy to me.”
Nevertheless, she is no fan of BDS because, as she put it, “it has a tendency to negate its own end goal.”
“It makes the pendulum of Israeli politics swing even more conservatively,” Ava told me. “When you see people living in the West Bank who don’t have enough access to water, and you see separate bus lines, I understand saying let’s stop paying money for this. I understand why people want to end the occupation. I understand [BDS]. That doesn’t mean I agree with them.”
Samuel Rothmann’s father, former KGO Radio host John Rothmann, is a lifelong pro-Israel activist, so Samuel, now 22, was already steeped in a love of Israel when he joined WOFI in 2010.
“What I loved about WOFI was that we met with a very right-wing settler and we also met with Moshe Dayan’s daughter,” he said, referring to Yael Dayan, the left-of-center Israeli peace activist. “We met with Israeli Arabs, Jews of Ethiopian descent serving with the army. I loved moments like that, where we got to sample different perspectives of Israeli society.”
Samuel took his passion for Israel to U.C. Davis, where he graduated this year. Davis often boiled over with anti-Israel protests and divestment measures. Samuel told me WOFI had prepared him well.
“In terms of the Israeli Jewish narrative, WOFI did a good job,” said Samuel, who grew up in San Francisco. “I remember nights staying up to 3 a.m. trying to come up with responses [to anti-Israel protesters] and preparing for debates. We’d talk to the pro-Palestinian advocates and try to engage them in constructive debate.”
He does wish the program had taught him more about the Palestinian narrative because, as he put it, knowing the opposition’s perspective might have helped him prepare counterarguments.
After graduation, Samuel made aliyah and now, like a number of WOFI alumni, serves in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I wanted to be part of Israeli society,” he said. “Joining the army is a huge assimilating system that helps you understand the culture.”
That was not an option for some participants in BlueStar Fellows 2013, a cohort of Bay Area college students. More than half of them were not Jewish.
One was Michelle Pigott, a 22-year-old San Diego native. She grew up hearing news stories about the “blood and gore” in the Middle East but said she was undecided about the conflict until “I met people who were affected by it.”
The college students had one pre-trip meeting, and once in Israel were required to contribute to a BlueStar Fellows blog. Michelle and her colleagues took that task seriously.
“There were times when some things didn’t add up to me,” she told me. “One was going through the West Bank for the first time and coming across signs [in Palestinian areas] that said it was illegal for any Israelis to go here.”
She also felt uncomfortable about a visit to the Psagot Winery, a Jewish-owned enterprise built in the West Bank. She enjoyed the wines and the view, but said something didn’t feel right.
“That was a red flag,” she said of Psagot. “Why take us to an area we all know is filled with poverty and hopelessness? When we were told about [Israeli] history, I felt sometimes they were saying this is the view, and there is no other view.”
Like Julia, Michelle also came away from a visit to Sderot deeply affected.
“It solidified in me the tension people there feel every single moment of their lives,” she said. “They’re not only living in fear of what might happen that day, they’re helpless to it.”
Back at U.C. Santa Cruz, known for its strident anti-Israel activism, Michelle found herself in an odd position. Though she had sympathy for the Palestinian view, she found herself ostracized simply because she had taken the BlueStar trip.
She and other BlueStar Fellows had tried to organize a dialogue with Students for Justice in Palestine. Instead, Michelle said, the SJP representative used their initial contact as fodder for a newspaper article condemning those who went on the trip.
“[The op-ed] was about people who were indoctrinated and going on a brainwashing trip,” she said. “It was very abrasive, saying ‘Engaging with any of you goes against our morals.’ ”
Michelle believes Israel has a right to exist, though she added, “I feel I can be pro-Israel and still be critical. People have a hard time understanding that. I can say I don’t agree with what Netanyahu does, but at the end of the day I want there to be peace in Israel and for the people there to have a state they can live in.”
Brandeis University sophomore Risa Dunbar, 21, understood the rationale for a Jewish state before signing up for WOFI in 2011. The Walnut Creek native attended the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco.
On the WOFI Israel trip, she found herself connecting to the country culturally, but sometimes the politics disturbed her.
A visit to Misgav Am, a kibbutz on the Lebanese border, crystalized that discomfort for her. American-born kibbutznik Alex Weiss spoke to our group as we looked out over the hills of Lebanon. He picked up a rock and tossed it over a fence. “That rock?” he said. “It just landed in Lebanon.”
In passionate and profane terms, Alex recounted the history of terror attacks on his kibbutz and did not hide his contempt for his Arab neighbors.
“It was really inflammatory,” Risa recalled. “Had I said something, he would have responded with more anger, and for me that feels like a very unproductive way of dealing with realities that are very difficult. I don’t believe that disagreement is inherently bad.”
She said WOFI gave her a basic understanding of the Israeli narrative, but as a young adult at Brandeis, her views on the conflict have changed.
“Since the war in Gaza last year, my thinking was sparked and I realized I didn’t have a community to speak to,” she said. “I realized there was a lot I’d been feeling for a long time, that I hadn’t been comfortable saying, and I found the space at Brandeis to do that, a space within a dual narrative.”
To put thoughts into action, Risa participated in a trip to Israel and the West Bank in June, attending a seminar at the Palestinian-run Al-Quds University, which formerly had an exchange program with Brandeis. For three days, students from both schools met, broke bread and sought common ground.
“We discussed why we came to this project,” Risa said. “I got to know what occupation means on a day-to-day basis. We talked about our greatest hopes and greatest shames of the way [our] peoples behaved, but we also got to know each other, going out for ice cream in Ramallah, talking about what music we listen to.”
Though the two universities have not yet renewed ties, Risa hopes they will, and that a group of Al-Quds students may someday come to Brandeis.
Julia Daniel, 21, has her hands full studying human biology and computer science at Stanford University, where she is co-chair of the Stanford chapter of J Street U and of the organization’s Northwest region.
I remember Julia as one of the most inquisitive members of the 2011 WOFI cohort. When she joined the program, she had minimal knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but growing up in Mill Valley and attending the Hebrew school at Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar, she came to think of Israel as a great country.
Still, much of what she heard in WOFI didn’t feel right. She remembers wondering why the Israel advocates we brought in seemed to her “so angry, aggressive and pushy of a certain perspective.”
“I didn’t know why Israel needed to be advocated for,” she said. “I never felt I had an understanding of the point, or the context.”
During her Israel trip, she visited Misgav Am and heard the spiel from Alex Weiss. It disturbed her, too.
“It was so clearly impressed upon me the danger of the place,” she recalled. “Right at the bottom of this hill there are thousands of people who want to kill us. Processing that now, I hold both things in my mind: The experiences on the kibbutz were very real, the danger was real. But all these countries are so incredibly complex, just as we were taught to see Israel as this complex place that is also super beautiful and has a long history.”
After WOFI, Julia did a gap year in Sweden, and once accepted to Stanford she shopped around for Jewish community. One option was J Street U, the campus arm of the left-leaning Jewish lobby. She met with one of the chapter’s founders.
“She seemed really smart,” Julia recalled. “We were on the same wavelength. Things she said to me hadn’t been said before and made a lot of sense to me.”
Over time, and after reading books presenting both sides of the conflict, her thinking crystalized.
“The narrative that Palestinians don’t like Israel because they hate Jews, that Israel needs to defend itself and Palestinians need to stop being terrorists — I found those arguments a little weak intellectually,” she said.
Despite her critique of Israel, she holds to the J Street line of being pro-Israel, pro-peace, and against BDS, which she knows is a red line in the Jewish community.
“If you want to be respected institutionally you cannot sign on to [BDS],” she told me. “If you support BDS, by and large you are forced to forfeit your ability to make change in the mainstream institutions of the Jewish community.”
Lily Greenberg Call, 18, would agree with Julia’s last point. Like Julia, Lily is a true-blue liberal. Like Julia, she rejects BDS. But her response as a U.C. Berkeley freshman has taken the form of ardent pro-Israel activism.
A native of San Diego and a Jewish day school graduate, Lily was part of the last WOFI cohort in 2014, a trip that coincided with the launch of the Gaza war. The group was never in harm’s way, but the students didn’t know that at the time.
“So many people were dying,” she remembered, “and I just felt this pain and suffering is not worth it. There’s no way that Israelis and Palestinians can live with this if I can’t even live with it for three weeks.”
The trip had a huge impact on her in other ways, as well.
“One thing WOFI did was encourage me to question,” Lily said. “In my school, a lot of kids thought American Jews can’t afford to question Israel; we just have to support it all the time. WOFI helped me understand you can question Israel and still love and support her.”
Today she is active with Bears for Israel, which has made its presence felt in counterprotests at Students for Justice in Palestine demonstrations. Lily has been unafraid to wade into the middle of an anti-Israel protest and wave her signs.
What did surprise her, she said, is the number of Jewish students at Cal who aren’t concerned with Israel at all. “That’s been eye-opening,” she said. “Also, knowing there are Jews in head positions at SJP, Jewish kids yelling ‘We support the intifada,’ hurts me. I don’t understand how they can be so far removed from a connection [to the Jewish people] and think at the end of the day they wouldn’t be targeted for [being Jews].”
Just three months into her studies, Lily is considering running for the student senate someday.
“I’m in a place where I sometimes feel my Jewish identity is questioned and told it’s not legit,” she said. “That makes me feel more of a reason to fight for it, to prove you can be a liberal and pro-Israel. Progressive Zionism is what we need.”
Reconnecting with these WOFI alumni, I realized something about myself. As much as the program helped open their minds, it closed mine.
Before, I had been a sincere but relatively disconnected supporter of Israel, in large part because my spotty knowledge of the region’s history, not to mention I lacked personal ties to the place. Rediscovering Israel year after year with a new crop of teens pushed me to choose sides.
Not that I don’t grasp the two competing narratives. Not that I don’t wish peace and prosperity for everyone in the region. I absolutely do. But bonding with Israel through WOFI resolved any lingering confusion. A lot of those kids — my kids — today wear the IDF uniform.
I am Israel’s, and she is mine.
I know I will see less of the WOFI alumni as the years roll by. As Robert Frost said, way leads on to way, and these young adults don’t need their old journalism instructor looking over their shoulder anymore (although I still do that on Facebook).
But I love them for what they taught me, for the laughs they brought me, and for reminding me what it feels like to be 17 and turned loose.
The WOFI way: an immersive pro-Israel education
Originally sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, Write On for Israel started in New York more than 10 years ago. BlueStar, an S.F.-based Israel advocacy organization, took on the program locally.
“I saw this as a novel way to get high school kids ready for college before they got there and were overwhelmed by events without any preparation,” said Jonathan Carey, who founded BlueStar and oversaw WOFI in the Bay Area.
Meeting one Sunday a month at the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, WOFI students completed six months of classroom study covering the history of Israel and the conflict. I taught journalism basics, such as the five Ws, spotting media bias and how to write a lede (industry vernacular for “lead paragraph”).
Why journalism? We wanted the kids to open their eyes when it came to Israel, and not take anything at face value.
Every year the students formed small groups, each making a short pro-Israel documentary during the 10-day summer trip to Israel that is the heart of the program. The teens, cameras in hand, met leaders in business, government and the arts, as well as everyday Israelis and Palestinians. They came up with the questions themselves, and would edit their films in time for the annual WOFI film festival in December.
WOFI ended in 2014 when funding evaporated. I asked Jonathan whether he felt the program was a success; his answer was a resounding yes.
“The key was to get the kids on the path of engagement and lifelong attachment to caring about what the outcome [of the conflict] might be,” he told me. “I believe we have changed their life path with Israel and their attachment to the country.” — dan pine