Amidst the various activities executed during the UPZ Spring Week of Action, the focal point was a delegation of Israeli students/Labor activists touring Northeast campuses. Handpicked by MK Colette Avital, these six Israelis ? all of whom are active with the Labor Party in their respective municipalities, and three of whom work, or have worked, as parliamentary aids to Labor members such as Matan Vilnai, Amram Mitzna and Ehud Barak ? came well prepared to speak on Israel, the conflict, and the fragile status of the Labor Party in the weeks before disengagement. What they were not as prepared for, was the level of awareness, interest and passion embodied by the American Jewish campus community that is affiliated with the UPZ.
The goal of this tour, likely to be the first in a series, was to acquaint our student activists here in America with students in Israel, on political, cultural and social levels. The format of the meetings was intimate dialogue, where everyone had a chance to say who they are and why there were present, thereby enabling personal connections to be forged. More than once I overheard one saying to another, ?you lived on which street that year? I grew up right around the corner from there!? and other such indications of how small the Jewish world is.
The tour was split into two tracks: UPZ Director Ari Brochin took three of them to Swarthmore College (PA), Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) the University of Pennsylvania(Philadelphia) and the University of Maryland (College Park) and Program Director Mairav Zonszein took three up north to Wesleyan (Middletown, CT), Brown, (Providence, RI), Harvard (Cambridge, MA), Vassar and SUNY New Paltz (Poughkeepsie, NY). Private and state, big and small, with a Hillel and without ? a wide range of schools was represented on the tour, and while each campus had a distinct atmosphere, the common denominator at each one was a strong Jewish presence, averaging 20%-30%.
At almost all of the universities, the core members of the campus group arrived, and often an interested professor or community member attended as well. At Wesleyan, for example, where there is no Hillel, we met in the ?Bayit,? the center for Jewish activity, with a handful of members of the ?Third Path? group. After an hour of conversation on the current situation in Israel, the Muslim Chaplain arrived and met with us. The Israelis were excited to speak with a devout Muslim who was sympathetic to Israel and interested in coordinating interfaith dialogue on campus. At New Paltz, there was a crowd of about 25, with a myriad of groups represented including Hillel, Students Against Empire, a Rabbi from the Chabad house, and the members of the UPZ group which call themselves Voice for Peace. Here the dialogue was much more heated because there were tough questions coming from both the left and the right.
At Brown University, the student activist group called ?Tikkun? was especially eclectic because it included both Jews who grew up in the labor Zionist youth movements and Jews who had not, those that have been to Israel and those that have not, and Christians and Muslims as well. A secular Muslim native of Long Island, NY named Ali, who grew up in a very pro-Palestinian home, told us he joined Tikkun due to his interest in being exposed to the Israeli perspective. There was also a graduate student of archaeology named Erin (Christian) who has been to Israel several times in the last 4 years doing digs as part of her studies. Over the years she has made friends, both Arab and Jewish and is therefore personally affected by the conflict. The students at Brown approach the conflict from a human rights perspective more so than from a personal connection to Israel and therefore focus their efforts on the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians.
At universities such as Harvard and Vassar, there was clearly a divide between groups devoted strictly to promoting and defending Israel (usually calling themselves ?Students for Israel?), and the groups the UPZ supports, who want to break out of the mainstream Israel advocacy mold, and engage in open dialogue that embraces criticism and analysis. The Israeli students were exposed to a much deeper issue facing the Middle East dialogue on campus: the hardships facing Jewish students who support Israel, but have trouble reconciling many of Israel?s policies with their grasp of social justice. This was thus an eye-opening experience for the Israelis, as they came to understand that what these students need is not ?hasbara,? not informing them of Israel?s situation, but rather sharing with them the nuances of the difficulties the country faces as it enters a new era.
It has been several years now since progressive Jewish students began forming campus groups in order to enter into the campus debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only this year, with the formation of the UPZ, has the progressive Zionist world begun to support these students. These campus visits by student activists in the Labor Party were an effective way for progressive forces in the US and Israel to demonstrate their support for these progressive American Jewish college students.
For the Americans, this was a chance to talk through the issues they deal with as student activists living far away from Israel, and to put faces and stories to the headlines. They became empowered by the knowledge that they have counterparts fighting for progressive values in Israel. This was perhaps most evident during the event at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. The event drew a typically diverse group of students ? many progressive Zionists, but also right-wing Jews, Arabs sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and several curious students. By happenstance, the day we came to Cornell coincided with an appearance by Israelis from ?Israel at Heart,? a program that bears some surface similarities to our tour. ?Israel at Heart,? in a way that typifies many of the Jewish community?s attempts to engage its students with Israel, sends very polished young Israelis to this country ? their participants speak English perfectly, and will launch into tape recorder exaltations of the beauty and goodness of Israel at the slightest provocation. Our students were not quite as polished- their English was very good, but not perfect, and they didn?t speak in sound bites ? but the answers they gave, and their wealth of experience in seriously engaging the problems of their country were well appreciated by all attendees.
This tour not only succeeded in introducing Americans to Israeli progressives, it also succeeded in engaging the Israeli participants with the American Zionist left. In our feedback session on the last day of the tour, each of the Israeli participants conveyed how necessary it is for the UPZ to exist, and expressed a desire to continue his/her involvement with us. The Israelis were impressed by the students they met, and had many recommendations for ways to build the UPZ into a stronger movement. Their enthusiasm was inspiring on its face, and is also a potential building block for a lasting relationship between Israeli and American progressive Zionist student activists.