After Israeli and Armenian flags were torn down and other items were thrown to the ground by anti-Israel protesters at an event in May at the University of California, Los Angeles, the school’s Students Supporting Israel (SSI) chapter gave a list of demands to the UCLA administration to protect the pro-Israel community.
SSI at UCLA is on the front lines fighting against the annual National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) Conference, which UCLA is slated to sponsor from Nov. 16-18.
For pro-Israel students by pro-Israel students, SSI is one of the many organizations on college campuses nationwide that face hostility in working towards supporting the State of Israel. But it is distinguishable from other such groups, as one of its founders called it Students for Justice in Palestine’s “proper opponent.”
SSI president and founder Ilan Sinelnikov told JNS that SSI, which was established by three students in March of 2012 on university grounds, is “a registered student group on campus,” which can be in the know “before the news travel outside of campus to other community organizations or organizations that work with students.”
“Our students are the front line of knowing what is happening on campus before any professional in the field can know. SSI is a campus-based and student-led organization,” he elaborated. “The difference is that only a student group can book a room for an event, be involved in student [government] and invite their friends to join our organization. No outside of campus organization could do it all, simply because they aren’t the students. SJP that is a national student movement finally has a national pro-Israel student movement to face.”
“Therefore, we registered on campus as a student group, got going, and we never imagined that our work will spread all over the country,” he continued. “While most of the other pro-Israel organizations were not started by students, and operate from outside of campus, Students Supporting Israel is the only organization that was born on the campus grounds, and due to the high need, spread from one campus to another over the years.
Approximately 700 to 800 participants participate across 45 SSI chapters nationwide, according to Sinelnikov.
“For years, we had one national student movement that operated against Israel—SJP—united under one name and one goal all over the country. In the Israel arena, each campus was operating [individually] running many pro-Israel student organizations with different names and no unity,” explained Sinelnikov. “This is when SSI was born—a campus-based organization that is organic to campus, and works under one name and one goal all over the country. SJP now doesn’t need to fight outsiders or local pro-Israel cells.”
‘Zionism is nothing to be ashamed of’
Melech Lapson, a junior and president of the SSI chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, called Illini Students Supporting Israel (ISSI). He initially had no interest in getting involved with on-campus Israel advocacy until he saw speakers brought by ISSI, and seeing the opposition and how they dehumanized anyone who disagreed with them, he explained.
“Only then did I decide to be involved in spreading the truth about Israel to others,” he said.
He said the dehumanizing “came in forms of protesting speeches—comparing Israel and Zionists to Nazis—and hateful sitting, such as ‘from the river to the sea Palestine will be free,’ implying the riding out of all Israelis.”
ISSI has invited numerous prominent speakers over the past year and have more planned for this year, he added.
“We try to bring in a wide variety of speakers and panels to help our campus understand all the different sides of Israel,” said Lapson. “We go further than just the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict; we dive into Israeli culture and history.”
Speakers have included Israeli reservist soldiers; Hen Mazzig, a humanitarian activist and journalist; and Ben Blackwell, a popular Israeli rapper.
Additionally, “We also have [an] eight-week student-led discussion, in its ninth semester, where we help educate 20 of our fellow students in the history of the conflict and Israeli culture, while also opening the floor for discussion for people to present their views on the incidents in Israel’s past,” said Lapson.
Lapson said that due to the discussion, “students report that they feel more comfortable discussing Israel and several join the ISSI board afterwards.”
Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said “student groups vary from campus to campus. Campuses differ politically and culturally; there is no cookie-cutter model.”
“Of all the many groups, one of the newer ones is SSI, a group that is proudly and openly Zionist, and has taken a pro-active political stance of rightly advocating for Israel as they have done at Columbia and on other campuses,” he added.
Moreover, Romirowsky said that “Zionism is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It is Jewish nationalism,” he stressed, “and to that end, our students need to feel a sense of pride in their own Jewish identity, which incorporates Zionism—something that groups like SSI do and should be commended for.”