Amidst rising anti-Semitism and recent BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) campaigns against Israel on US campuses, this winter, advocacy organization Hasbara Fellowships is bringing 70 North American students to Israel to become the next generation of voices for Israel.
On December 9, students at NYU approved a BDS resolution. In recent weeks, Pitzer College professors voted to suspend its study abroad relationship with the University of Haifa. UCLA hosted the national Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) conference and University of Michigan professors denied recommendation letters for study abroad in Israel.
As pro-Israel students and organizations assemble to fight the BDS movement’s mark on higher education, they are also taking the offensive with the help of leading campus activism organization Hasbara Fellowships. Working on more than 80 universities across North America, the fellowship program cultivates the next generation of passionate and articulate voices for Israel. Their 15-day training program features training in on-camera techniques, social media skills, coalition building and role-playing scenarios that are likely to arise in hostile campus environments. Trip participants will also take part in a negotiations seminar and will travel across Israel for insightful briefings and firsthand accounts from top Israeli experts in diplomacy, media and other fields that intimately shape advocacy.
According to Israel Director of Hasbara Fellowships Eitan Rosenfeld, this past year has seen a huge uptake in “straight up anti-Semitic incidents, such as swastikas being drawn,” as well as “more and more anti-Israel propaganda and BDS campaigns.”
For students involved in Israel advocacy, Rosenfeld told Breaking Israel News, “campus is not a comfortable place to be right now.” This, said Rosenfeld, could have consequences not only on Jewish individuals, but on the world as a whole as other students “will go on and become leaders on a global, political and business level in the next 10-20 years.”
“The conversation will affect them in university and we don’t want them to come out with a wrong view of Israel and the Jewish people’s story,” he said. So to ensure that the right stories are being told, Hasbara Fellowships trains students to effectively tell Israel’s story to individuals and campus groups, engaging with anti-Israel allegations head on and even understanding Jewish identity, which Rosenfeld maintains helps to fight BDS and anti-Israel propaganda.
“When you deeply understand who you are, then you can be yourself freely and stand for what you believe in, creating a passionate fire that ignites other people to be proud of and stand up the values they believe in,” he said.
One such example of a Hasbara Fellow who trained to advocate for Israel on campus, only to increase his on self-identity and expression, is Daniel Traub. Traub, now 25, participated in a Hasbara Fellowship training in Israel as a student at Boston University. Although he described the overall anti-Israel sentiment on his campus as “relatively light” due to the “strong Jewish population at BU,” he reported anti-Semitic incidents on campus, including incidents involving anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
In response to anti-Semitic conversations and confrontations, Traub turned to Hasbara Fellowships to attend the advocacy training in Israel to learn how to provide opposition to the rising anti-Semitism on his college campus.
This coming winter, more than 70 students from 25 campuses will also travel to the Jewish state, hearing from Israeli and Palestinian thought leaders to gain tools to tackle any possible scenario on campus and beyond, and to make the case for Israel in a balanced, reasoned manner that does more than ‘preach to the choir.’
Traub maintained that Hasbara Fellowships effectively taught him how to answer tough questions by providing him with information and techniques that spread a positive view of Jews and Israel. At a public debate on campus between Boston University Students for Israel (BUSI) and SJP, he told Breaking Israel News, “Hasbara was able to provide us with the knowledge to make a proper defense, and the event went well – there was respect and we had a clear victory at the debate.”
In Israel, after hearing from both Israelis and Palestinians, said Traub, “I was able to come to my own conclusions and have decided, without a doubt, on the validity of Israel and her actions.” Through the campus programming he helped organize, Traub worked to spread this conclusion to others at BU. “Through events like Israel Peace Week (a week of programing that showcases positive aspects of Israel, organized by pro-Israel organizations across the country), we were able to show that Israel is a land of peace, tolerance and democracy.”
At one event on his campus Israel Peace Week, he said, the group held an international food festival in which they invited different cultural groups on campus to provide food native to their land. “BUSI even invited SJP to the event to promote peace between our two groups,” said Traub, who is now living in Jerusalem after making aliyah and serving in the IDF as a lone soldier and combat medic in the paratroopers unit.
“Hasbara also gave me a deeper spiritual connection to its land and people,” he said.
According to Rosenfeld, this training is so vital because it is this very connection and identity described by Traub that anti-Israel groups try to undermine. “We have Jewish students on campus who are being denied the right to be themselves – a part of the Jewish people. We are fighting anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism,” he explained. “When people spread ideas that Israel shouldn’t exist, they are saying that the Jewish people do not have the right to self-determination. So now, we are fighting for that right, just as we fought for the right 70 years ago when the State of Israel was established,” he said.
“Campus is the new battleground on an ideological level – that’s why the discussion on campus is so important.”