On April 3, nearly 100 students from UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, USC, Loyola Marymount, California State University Fullerton, Tarbut v’Torah, and San Diego State University converged on the campus of UC Irvine for its first annual Southern California Israel Advocacy Conference. The conference, hosted by the David Project and co-hosted by Anteaters for Israel, Hillel of UCI, Chabad of UCI, the Jewish Federation of Orange County and the Rose Project, was fashioned in order to better guide pro-Israel students in their Israel advocacy work on college campuses.
“Campus activism is extremely important in not only countering efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel, but also inspiring general Israel programming among the wider student body,” said David Dabscheck, the David Project’s strategic initiatives and special projects director. “I have personally seen how student leaders have been able to transform the atmosphere on their campuses, which to me belies the conventional wisdom that the younger generation is somehow apathetic or uninvolved. This is why the work the David Project does on campuses is so important.”
After an opening seminar describing the importance of what to discuss about Israel in different circumstances, the conference split into two groups. One group learned how to address attempts to delegitimize Israel on their campuses while the other learned how to build coalitions with other campus student groups. After each seminar ended, the groups switched.
The group learning how to handle hostility to Israel on campus watched videos of Israeli Apartheid Week activity, such as mock beatings, protests equating Israel and Jews with Nazis, and anti-Israel speakers on college campuses in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. It then studied common anti-Zionist arguments before teaching the students how to deconstruct, respond to and disprove them.
“What’s really disturbing to me is the ‘mainstreaming’ of the apartheid accusation,” Dubscheck said to the first group. He briefly explained to the students that Israeli Apartheid Week had first begun at York University in Toronto in 2004. The Jewish community there had known it was coming, Dubscheck said, but thought it would be best to ignore it so as to avoid bringing attention to it. To provide an example of the power of student activism, Dubscheck also recounted the fight against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement at the University of Michigan, when anti-Zionist students had attempted to present the legislation to the school’s student council under the radar. The president of the university’s pro-Israel club, with last-minute notice, was able to write up a speech the night before the legislation would be decided upon, and, with it, persuaded the school’s student council to staunchly reject the BDS movement.
“I think The David Project’s work is unique because it allows participants to learn about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in a supportive environment that allows for critical thinking and vigorous discussion,” Dubscheck said. “I am proud of the fact that we adhere to high academic standards in all our materials and also help students across hundreds of campuses and schools in North America.”
The second group learning about building student coalitions learned what was termed the “I-engage method,” which consisted of four critical points in developing a relationship with other student groups: know your audience, know your point A to point B, know how to get from point A to point B and your talking points. Students were shown examples of Facebook profiles and challenged to come up with ways in which to engage the fictional personalities with Israel based on their interests portrayed in the profiles.
After students had been given a chance to attend both groups, they reconvened for a presentation by Noam Bedein, director of the Sderot Media Center, on life in Sderot under rocket fire from Gaza. While speaking, Bedein passed around the audience a piece of shrapnel from a Gaza rocket collected by the Sderot police department.
“A teacher in Sderot once asked her class, ‘Why do you think snails have shells?’ The entire class answered, ‘To protect them from the Qassams,’” Bedein said. “There is a natural unbalance in media coverage of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict. This leads to more people having sympathy for Palestinians, which leads to legitimacy to continue firing missiles, which gives legitimacy to continue terror, and dangerous elements open up all over the world.”
In order to fight the “Gaza Media Public Relations War,” as Bedein coined it, he offered information in three categories to help contextualize the situation concerning Gaza; comparing charts of massacres and war crimes of different world conflicts in the past decade, detailing the types and amount of humanitarian aid sent in to Gaza and disproving the “disproportionate response” claim used by anti-Zionists to demonize Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead.
After that, students were treated to a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary, “Strangers No More.” The film follows the lives of three refugee students at a school in Israel that offers a place to learn for immigrants and refugees.
When the film was over, the podium was taken by Judea Pearl, father of the late journalist Daniel Pearl, who was slain by Al Qaeda on camera in 2002.
“[The situation at UC Irvine] is not an issue of anti-Semitism,” Pearl said, “although from a legal viewpoint, this is the card that’s effective. We are fighting here against anti-Zionism… that we claim to be a racist ideology. So I’d rather not mention the word ‘anti-Semitism.’ It’s a loaded word. It’s so easy to divert to, ‘my best friends are Jews,’ ‘I’m only against Zionists,’ ‘I’m a Jew.’”
Pearl continued, speaking on the efforts of anti-Zionist organizations on college campuses, “You cannot build your dream on the destruction of your neighbor’s. That’s what my kindergarten teacher taught me… we are equally indigenous… today our enemy, tomorrow our neighbor. That disparity is our greatest strength, the difference between the Israeli utopia and the Palestinian utopia.”
Dubscheck said, “I hope that this will become an annual occurrence. Moreover, I think the larger than expected turnout from so many campuses demonstrated the demand for programming of this kind and I believe there is a strong future for this type of conference.”
Readers interested in the David Project can find more information at www.davidproject.org.