Caravan for Democracy fosters dialogue on the Middle East.

US college campuses are hotbeds of thought and the free exchange of ideas on all subjects including the Middle East. Jewish students frequently find themselves on the defensive, without the knowledge to defend the anti-Israeli rhetoric that is embracing America’s college campuses.

One program that is aiming to change that situation is Caravan for Democracy, a project of the Jewish National Fund, Media Watch International and Hamagshimim. Caravan targets 25 campuses per semester in an attempt to foster a constructive democratic dialogue on the Middle East by providing different speakers to discuss Israel and its policies.

My firsthand experience with Caravan’s success came when Ra’anan Gissin, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, spoke at my college campus at SUNY Albany. This was the first Israeli political event I was ever involved in, and it motivated me.

Gissin’s presence created a huge controversy around the campus. I saw people in my school becoming more politically active, whether they were on Israel’s side or not.

It was the first time I had seen such a response from so many different groups of people – some good, some disturbing, but all valid. It demonstrated the fervent support among the students for Israel and for Palestinians – both important in my mind – and the impact both communities can have on campus.

The impact of Gissin’s visit transcended the campus, with the three Albany news stations covering the event as one of their top stories, and the local daily and community newspapers reporting on it.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Gissin prior to his community address, in a smaller meeting with Jewish student leaders, where he stressed the importance of our leadership roles in a college setting.

Seeing this man put so many of my thoughts into words affected me greatly. Gissin made me realize why Israel is so important to Jews, both culturally and religiously, and why sentiments have been so high regarding the conflict with the Palestinians.

Caravan for Democracy helped my school and its students – both Jewish and non-Jewish – by increasing awareness of the political ties that the U.S. and Israel share and why these ties are important for the Jews. It was a wonderful program and I think it would be great to have it back on my campus in years to come.

If a speaker could create such a stir among students in a school of 15,000, imagine what it could do to a school of 50,000? Our school was the smallest the Caravan program had come to, however it was by far the most successful. This was in primarily due to the many students and faculty who worked very hard on setting up the event as well as the support of the university

I feel I was productive in aiding in this program. Knowing that we had over 600 people signed up for this event, – and a sold out audience with 200 people on the waiting list – makes me feel like we reached many people in the Albany area and made a strong impact on the students.

With that impact comes a realization. As a college student, it is very disturbing to realize that the same people who sit next to you in a classroom setting or may be even your roommate, have such opposing views. However, it’s also reassuring to know that these same people can talk with you about your night on the town or a television show you both might have seen the night before.

This makes education a gift. Uneducated people believe what they are told; educated people question what they are told. As Malcolm X said, “education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”