Debate over Israel and Middle East policy has become increasingly strident on some college campuses.Israeli volunteers, including Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Minister of Transportation, Efraim Sneh, and Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, will tour U.S. college campuses in support of Jewish students under fire for their outspoken support of Israel.
The appearances are under the auspices of a program called “Caravan for Democracy” sponsored initially by the Jewish National Fund, Media Watch International and Hamagshimim, a university Zionist movement. The program seeks to promote greater dialog and understanding and fight what seems to be a rising tide of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.
Sponsors of the program see a growing need for such support. Recent violence in the Middle East has made Israel-bashing more vicious, more anti-Semitic and more frightening than ever for Jewish students to confront.
At one event at San Francisco State University last month, for example, a peace rally organized by Jewish students was overwhelmed by anti-Israel groups who shouted slogans such as “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and “Jews get out or we will kill you,” and who physically threatened the Jewish students.
Caravan for Democracy counters this type of intimidation by hosting a well-known Israeli government or media personality who speaks fluent English for a full day of meetings and lectures. Campus visits by Olmert, Sneh, and Regev have taken place already and many others are planned for the future. The speakers discuss the challenges Israel faces and offer information to Jewish students who want to actively support Israel on campus.
The Israeli speakers lend their authority to the debate in meetings with professors of various departments and in discussing Israel with students and the university community.
“Often, this dialogue becomes a one-on-one with professors who are known to be anti-Israel,” said Mara Baylis, Director of Caravan’s College Activists Department.
The visitors then meet with college newspaper representatives and journalism students to discuss how Israel is treated in the media, offering interviews and information for Israel-related newspaper articles, and answering questions about their views concerning what’s happening in the Middle East.
“We make sure that college papers get first-hand exposure to Israelis who are knowledgeable about the facts,” Baylis said.
Finally, the Israelis give a lecture that’s open to the entire campus community. The topic is usually one that reflects shared democratic values in Israeli and American societies.
Caravan for Democracy has visited 16 campuses so far, including Ohio State University, University of Michigan, George Washington University and Northwestern University.
Many Jewish students say the program supports them in backing Israel by providing them with a chance to meet Israeli decision makers and opinion-shapers.
“There are lots of Jewish people here and we thought it would be great to have someone here who is so close to the decision-makers there.” said Ilanit Rozin, president of Students for Israel at Washington University in St. Louis, which hosted a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “It’s great to have that connection.”
The initiative combines the knowledge and resources of its three sponsoring organizations to encourage critical thinking about the issues affecting Israel, how news about Israel is covered in the media and Israel’s unique role in the Middle East. On each campus, other campus organizations, academic departments and student groups are encouraged to get involved.
“It is important for students in the United States to understand that Israel and the United States have a unique bond, based on their shared values of democracy and freedom, and that both countries face the continued threat of terrorism and must be unified in protecting the rights of their citizens,” said Jewish National Fund President Ronald S. Lauder. “Israel, like the United States, is a democracy whose citizens enjoy the same rights, protections and responsibilities as Americans.”
“By providing information and analysis, we are enabling American college students to understand Israel from a democratic perspective, and thereby hope to create a movement of support for Israel as a democracy,” said Jay Schottenstein of Media Watch International’s board of directors.
The idea for Caravan for Democracy really took off after the Sept. 11 attacks, Baylis said.
“After Sept. 11 people realized that college campuses were in danger, that supporters of Israel on college campuses needed support,” she said. “It was an issue that couldn’t wait on the backburner any longer.”
“In our hearts we understand the crucial role that a democratic Israel plays in stabilizing the region and the strategic importance it has for the United States,” Lauder said. “Yet, on college campuses we have clearly not succeeded in explaining the threat that is dangerously unfolding. We cannot allow the enemies of democracy to win this battle for the minds of Americans.”