Together for Israel

When Sarah Tolkoff returned to UC Irvine to begin a new school year, she found that the Muslim student newspaper Al Kalima’s cover featured a picture of Sharon and Hitler’s faces digitally merged together. The headline read: “History repeats.”

History was also repeating itself for Tolkoff, who had hoped that by this semester the anti-Israel propaganda would have been toned down.

“This is what is going to set the tone for the school year,” said Tolkoff, founder of the UCI activist group Anteaters for Israel.

But the tone was set long before September. Since violence began escalating in the Middle East more than two years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has dominated the political conversation on campuses nationwide, and Orange County is no exception. Caught up in a highly emotional battle that is as passionate as the source of the conflict, college students on each side of the issue are taking every opportunity to state their case.

While pro-Palestinian campaigns last year were well-organized and emotionally appealing, Israel supporters had often lacked the factual and rhetorical preparation to effectively connect with their peers. Unprepared for what they were up against last year, student groups and Jewish organizations are now working together to address this disadvantage. Hasbara (“advocacy” in Hebrew) for Israel is being organized on campuses in Orange County and nationwide as Jewish organizations begin campaigns to reach students this school year.

“Over the last year, quite a few students have really come to the conclusion that they have no choice other than to stand up for Israel; they’re feeling really besieged on campus,” said Dr. Lauren Foster, director of academic affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. “Anti-Semitism and hatred has been a big problem at UCI in particular.”

After several incidents last year at UCI in which Jewish students were followed and threatened, the consulate is on high alert. At the student’s request, the consulate is working closely with the Anteaters for Israel, Hillel’s Jewish Student Union and individual students to provide them with everything from speakers to literature and various materials. Foster said their challenge is to appeal to a wide range of students. “The other side has been trained thoroughly … there’s no dissent, no nuance. We have students from the religious and political spectrums and we try to work with them where they’re comfortable at.”

One of the greatest challenge for pro-Israel organizations at UCI is appeal to the Jewish students who have little attachment to religion or Israel. “I think there are a lot of Jewish students who latch on to the ultra-liberal,” Tolkoff said. “They are sort of closet Jews and not really involved. How can you ask them to take a political stance that seems so affiliated with a religious one?”

Tolkoff tries to personlize the conflict, presenting as a human rights issue rather than a religious one. “One thing that college kids latch onto first are human-rights issues … People are dying on both sides and this is something that we need to fight against.”

Many pro-Israel organizations on campus have joined forces to plan, strategize and take action to support pro-Israel activities on local campuses. Orange County recently formed the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a network of representatives from the Bendat Hillel Center, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, StandWithUs, MERIT and student representatives from UCI.

Organization leaders hope the various groups can pool resources and expertise to tailor campaigns for individual Orange County campuses.

The first focus of the coalition is UC Irvine, which has seen the greatest proportion anti-Israel activity. “UCI is a more suburban kind of campus … it doesn’t have the large population of Jewish kids like UCLA,” ADL Regional Director Joyce Greenspan said. “We were unprepared last year and we’re not going to let that happen to our students again,” she said.

ICC last month sent a delegation of seven students to the Action Israel Weekend, a program preparing West Coast college students to counteract anti-Israel sentiment on campus. The Oct. 18-20 getaway at Camp Ramah in Ojai was the second one of its kind, sponsored this year by the Consulate General of Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Betar on Campus, AIPAC, Hillel and ADL.

“The weekend was geared toward students who are already activists,” said Steven Mercer, director of the College Campus Initiative Jewish Community Relations Council, but it was also open to “young activists looking to play a larger role in the pro-Israel community.”

This year many organizations are reinventing their tactics as a result of their experiences from the previous year. For Orange County Hillel, the approach is pro-active. “In the past it has always been reactionary,” Orange County Hillel Executive Director Jeffrey Ripps said.

They are planning a four-week, biweekly seminar designed to arm students with information to fight the war of words. “Most Jewish students don’t know enough information to argue back,” Ripps said.

Through education, Ripps said, the students will be able to find their own truths and to understand the opposition. “Our primary goal is to make them feel comfortable and confident … not necessarily to give them their opinion,” Ripps said.

Although Hillel’s main target is UCI, Ripps hopes to promote Israel on smaller campuses by exposing students to Jewish life, such as Israeli food and music. “We want to promote Israel for what it is and not always have to talk about the conflict,” Ripps said.

For those wanting to talk about the conflict, the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC presented a six-part lecture series, “Middle East Fact & Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed.” The series, which took place July 14-Oct. 24 at various locations throughout Orange County, featured Avi Davis, senior fellow at the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies. The mission statement of the series was to provide “a comprehensive understanding of the politics, people, and history of Israel and the Middle East. Ideal for everyone who cares about Israel.”

Now that the students are better prepared this year, Jewish organizations hope that students will actively engage in dialogue with their opponents. For example, there is an ongoing forum at UCI between members of Hillel, the Muslim Student Union, the Society for Arab Students, the Jewish Student Union, and Anteaters for Israel, coordinated through the Dean of Students Office.

“The goal is to come and talk … to bring issues from the past that have offended the students on campus and to come up with ways they hope to create dialogue and educate each other,” said Ripps, noting that students on both sides are skeptical.

Considering the recent history of such forums on college campuses throughout the country, a certain level of skepticism is not surprising: Almost any effort to promote discussion between the two sides, no matter how well intentioned, has backfired.

For example, a symposium at Colorado College in September with keynote speakers, former Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, an advocate of the Palestinian cause, and Gideon Doron, president of the Israeli Political Science Association, caused demonstrations and counter-protests, not peaceful dialogue.

The topic of Israel is so sensitive on college campuses that it has become almost impossible to agree on what is neutral and what is propaganda. MERIT, a Fullerton-based organization that monitors local media for bias in reporting about Israel, asked local public officials to investigate an Oct. 9 UCI workshop closed to the public that the groups labels as “propaganda” and “pro-violence” (see page 10).

The situation is perhaps too heated to lend itself to civilized debate at this point in time, but at the very least, organizations hope to improve the quality of life for Jewish students on campus. Tolkoff and Anteaters for Israel consistently meet with the UCI administration in hopes of coming to a consensus about the limitations of appropriate speech on college campuses. “We’ve been meeting with them all summer to agree upon what is appropriate and what isn’t, but it’s hard to do that without trampling on First Amendment rights,” Tolkoff said. “How do you explain why a political statement is also an anti-Semitic one?”

The distinction between free speech and anti-Semitism is a difficult one, especially in an environment that is supposed to encourage individual expression. But for Tolkoff, there is an important difference: “My opinion is that it’s a university, it’s not a battleground.”

Passover In Bolivia

I found myself at a seder in Cochabamba, Bolivia on a cool spring evening during Passover 1999. At the time I was spending a semester abroad as part of my major in international studies at Macalester College.

On a daily basis in Bolivia, I experienced most situations from the perspective of a North American female living in a culture dramatically different from the one in which I was raised. The first night of Passover in Bolivia was unique because it was an uncanny juxtaposition of the foreign and the totally familiar, a combination that had the potential to be unsettling but proved to be truly rewarding.

I had learned about this seder — and the synagogue service that preceded it — from a Bolivian doctor who was a member of the small Jewish community in Cochabamba. Most Bolivians, including the incredible host family with whom I lived for six months and became very attached to, had very little practical knowledge of Judaism, since Bolivia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The local synagogue, discreetly tucked into a corner of town not far from the main plaza, was a small white colonial-style building with a delicate stained-glass Star of David above the door. Arriving a few minutes early, I walked in and was faced with a wooden partition, which I assumed was to prevent the congregated masses from having to view the arrival of latecomers. Entering, I saw that the sanctuary was totally empty.

About 20 rows of red-upholstered pews extended in two columns. At the front of the sanctuary were the bimah and the ark. It was all quite familiar: the flame burning above the ark to remind the congregation of God’s eternal presence, and other traditional objects like a menorah and wine glasses.

I had been standing in the doorway for a minute, wondering if I had arrived on the wrong day, when two young men arrived and introduced themselves as Peace Corps volunteers. From the basket just inside the door, they helped themselves to kipot, and we stood there chatting, waiting awkwardly for directions of some kind.

Finally, after a good 15 minutes, people began to arrive. I realized that the more relaxed South American standards of time applied to religious services as well as to everyday events. As people filed in and began to mill around, I said goodbye to my new friends when I realized I would be sitting separate from them in the women’s section. I approached a group of women, hoping to make conversation.

"Buenas noches," I said, unsure as to what language I would hear in reply. "Chag sameach" they answered. Familiar as their greeting was, it gave me no clue as to their nationality. I began some small talk in Spanish, but it became clear that the language of choice was Hebrew, with English as a fallback. I soon learned that these women were all from Israel and were here to visit family. Just as I was wondering if the service would ever begin, 30 to 40 Israelis in their 20’s entered in groups of three or four.

Soon the service began, although it seemed that hardly anyone realized it. A few of the men were chanting a familiar melody, and the rest of the congregation was simply watching. In the women’s section, most were chatting quite loudly. Only a couple of times did we sing a prayer in unison. The service was over before I realized it, lasting less than half an hour.

The seder itself was held in a spacious room in a nearby community center. Tables set up in a U-shaped pattern lined the perimeter of the room, with three smaller tables in the center. I smiled to myself as I spotted all the traditional foods of the holiday — plates of matzah, the bright pink maror, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, charoset and wine. The three center tables seemed to be designated for families — several children were in the group — and the families appeared to be Bolivian, all chatting in Spanish, with some of the kids rehearsing their readings for the service to come.

The haggadahs for the evening were photocopied booklets, with the service in Hebrew and Spanish. A Bolivian man began to lead the seder, and his wife, the Hebrew school teacher, prompted the children when it was their turn to read.

Once the dinner was served, I felt as though I could have been at any other seder I’ve ever attended. There was the traditional matzah ball soup, the chicken, potatoes, gefilte fish and fruit salads. After dinner, the table looked like tables always seem to after a seder, with scattered bits of matzah that didn’t make it into anyone’s mouth, bright blotches of the almost fluorescent pink horseradish on various plates, and wine stains on the white tablecloth.

As at many seders, we began to sing after dinner, though this singing was like none that I have experienced. A woman, her hands swaying through the air, stood at the front of the room to direct her Sunday school students in song. However, it soon it became clear who was really leading the songs. The 60-strong Israeli delegation, some rather affected by the wine, sang out with spirit and enthusiasm, and soon no one else could be heard. Everyone joined in, and finally, as all seders do, this one ended when group consensus determined that the singing had gone on long enough.

I had approached this event with little idea of what to expect at a Bolivian seder, but with a firm notion of what a seder was "supposed to be." In the end, I was not disappointed. I had anticipated a more distinctly Bolivian flavor to the evening, but it reflected more of an international sentiment. In retrospect, though, this seems only appropriate, since Judaism, after all, is a religion that transcends national boundaries, creating an international community of Jews all over the globe.

And that is something that I know will offer me both comfort and familiarity, no matter where in the world I find myself at future seders.