As March comes to a close, Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) has come and gone on campuses across North America. While the number of schools that hosted IAW events this year remained static, more than 50 campuses – many of them for the first time and with no IAW presence – hosted Israel Peace Week (IPW) programs. ICB asked a few members of the pro-Israel community to assess what has been learned from the recent round of events.
Gone are the days when IAW caused great discomfort among Israel advocates. Ever since a group of students came up last year with the idea to launch IPW simultaneously, the campus dynamic has changed and pro-Israel students report making great strides in countering the false accusations that characterize most IAW activities. By working strategically and forging a wide array of partnerships, pro-Israel students have shifted the conversation and highlighted the importance of civil dialogue and the pursuit of peace.
Earlier this month, members of Boston University’s Students for Justice in Palestine stood on campus with a makeshift wall emulating Israel’s security fence in the West Bank, while also disseminating negative messages about Israel.
At the same time, pro-Israel students staged a peaceful rally, with over 200 students uniting to defend Israel while promoting the idea of peace in the Middle East’s only democratic nation.
But just a few years ago, this unification would have been unlikely, according to Arielle Adler, a BU senior and one of the co-founders of Israel Peace Week.
“We felt that the pro-Israel message was all over the place, without one unified message,” she said. “Every campus did their own thing, without anything tying them together.”
In order to properly counter Israel Apartheid Week and the growing anti-Israel sentiment on campus, a singular unifying message was needed. That message was peace.
“[Israel Peace Week] was started to demonstrate that Israel does want peace, and they are constantly making efforts towards peace,” said Adler.
“What we’ve found is the best way to deal with Apartheid Week is to counter it with proactive messages focusing on human rights, democracy and freedoms in Israel,” noted Abram Shanedling, a Regional Campus Director for Hasbara Fellowships.
This approach includes encouraging activists to hold events that will reach a large audience and resonate with people on campus.
“That’s something we’re really trying to emphasize among students,” he said. “Do something about gender equality, or about religious freedom, or about gay and homosexual rights. Those are the types of messages that resonate well with students.”
In order to do this, pro-Israel groups must team up with other groups on campus that they usually wouldn’t think of in order to support Israel.
For example, during Israel Peace Week at the University of Illinois, pro-Israel students partnered with LGBT and women’s rights groups on campus and rented out a local gay nightclub for a night. This event focused around a theme of freedom of expression in Israel.
Similarly, Shanedling noted that Hasbara is working with many campuses to raise money for Save a Child’s Heart , an Israeli-based organization that provides life-saving heart surgeries for children from around the world. Many of the children the organization works with are Palestinian, or come from Arab countries that don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“It’s a great example of Israel’s commitment to humanitarianism,” he said.
Phil Brodsky, campus team manager for the David Project, stresses that IPW should be a time for creating dialogue on campus.
“[Students] should run with the idea of peace as an initiative on campus,” he said. “Let’s work to create a peaceful dialogue on campus.”
These efforts can extend beyond the scope of Israel, Brodsky added.
“Students should work to create this greater dialogue on campus about peace in which all students can participate, whether they’re passionate about Israel or about another part of the world,” he said.
This is no simple task, Brodsky acknowledged. In order to start these dialogues, pro-Israel students need to directly address the issue of Israel as an apartheid state, he said, and many pro-Israel students are uncomfortable starting that conversation.
Additionally, campuses need to find a place for a pro-Palestinian conversation that promotes peace and hope for the future. Currently, Brodsky said, many groups that claim to be pro-Palestinian focus their actions on anti-Israel rhetoric.
“We would like to find space with students on campus to talk about how we can one day see reconciliation with these two groups and move towards the future,” he said, also noting that most Israel supporters devote much of their time to “defend[ing] Israel from these awful claims.”
If students can engage effectively with other groups to combat anti-Israel ideas and promote truths about Israel, then this dialogue can happen. This is happening at the University of Pennsylvania, according to Lauren Shuman, The David Project’s campus coordinator for the mid-Atlantic region.
At Penn, pro-Israel students and pro-Palestinian students first came together in 2008, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian , Penn’s student newspaper. Shuman said the two groups now come together about once each semester for a discussion on the issue.
“There are two sides to every conflict,” Karim Abdel-Latif, a pro-Palestinian student, told The Daily Pennsylvanian after the first dialogue between the two sides. “I know my opinions are much less educated if I don’t go and see what the other has to say.”
It is unknown when, and if, dialogue like this at Penn will be seen on campuses across the nation, but Israel Peace Week marks a step in the right direction. In just its second year, it has grown to influence college campuses across the country to promote peace in Israel. Hopefully, this can lead to more peaceful dialogue in the future.
At the University of Rochester, students organized an “Israel peace chain” to show various ways in which Israel is pursuing peace. They highlighted Israel’s humanitarian aid programs, environmental aid, and women’s rights.
“The message we would like to send to people is that Israel is a peaceful, democratic nation that has been pursuing peace since the inception of the State,” said Anna Richlin, the event’s organizer and another IPW founder. “We want to encourage students to try and gain more knowledge so they can make a more knowledgeable decision about the situation themselves.”
Back at BU, Adler said the group of pro-Israel students at the rally, some of whom she had never seen before, accomplished what they set out to accomplish for IPW: They were able to tell the community that only peace, not extremism, is acceptable on campus.
“We just wanted a positive image of Israel out there, and I think that’s exactly what Israel Peace Week did,” she said. “I think it really made a difference.”