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Profiles In Courage

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College should be a place of learning, a place for a free exchange of ideas, a time to explore new perspectives. However, numerous studies have shown that this ideal is nothing more than fiction, and in no area is this truer than that of Israel. In fact, most information coming out of college campuses unfairly demonizes the country and spouts outright lies.

Yes, I can handle the truth. Although I am proud to be Israeli, I do not pretend to belong to a perfect country. I disagree with policies, don’t always like the party in power and sometimes, I really find myself wondering if certain politicians are in touch with reality. The mark of a great democracy is one where flaws can be openly discussed and fixed, without the government cracking down with bullets. No country should be above criticism when it is deserved.

The problem is that critique for bad policies must be balanced with justified praise for good ones. Yet, when it comes to Israel, there is no flaw too small to be used as a cudgel against the country. If Israel supports freedom of lifestyles, it is accused of pink washing. If it talks about literature, authors like Moshe Sakal are thrown out of literary conferences because their mere presence makes Palestinians uncomfortable. This double standard and willful ignorance especially invades the college atmosphere where Israel isn’t even given the benefit of a defense in the court of public opinion.

Let us make it clear. It is not Israel’s faults that are scrutinized and bemoaned it is its existence itself. There is no other side. According to many, Israel is wrong, even when it acts correctly. Any attempt to discuss it rationally is often fruitless, when facing a stream of misinformation.

The worst are the outright lies. One of my friends sent me an e-mail, saying that he had been told by fellow college students, “If you buy things from Israel, you support Israel and give them more money to kill Palestinian babies” this for deciding to buy Chanukah gelt for his friends. I laughed so I wouldn’t cry. Killing babies? We’re not even talking about lies anymore, we’re talking about libel from medieval woodcuts about the condiments we put on our matza.

I sent him a list of sources, but I found myself increasingly frustrated. It’s one thing to disagree on the issues, but Israel is being painted in a demonic light, a devil upon nations in a world where genocide, gender apartheid and slavery still run rampant. It’s exhausting to students because instead of having productive conversations, we’re doing damage control on outright lies.

Of course, there are heroes who speak up and try to have an honest discussion, but they face overwhelming pressure. These students need our support and praise, because they have a thankless and often emotionally draining job.

One particular student leader is Samantha Vinoker, formally of Pitt University. Sam was the leader of the student Zionist group on campus during her time at school, and describes dealing with vocal Students for Justice in Palestine, who used live theatre and other methods to graphically slander Israel.

“They did everything from marching through the campus with coffins meant to represent ‘martyrs’ to having general rallies (including die-ins) in the middle of campus,” she explains in an interview. Students would lie down in public places, pretending to be dead in order to bring one-sided attention to the conflict.

If the Hillel ever put on programs of their own, SVP would protest the events. In one event, IDF soldier Benjamin Antony was invited to speak and received a very hostile welcome. “They came in with tape over their mouths, disrupted his speech to walk out, and then stood outside the room screaming and chanting until they were moved away by the campus police,” Sam explained, as seen in a video easily available on youtube by IsraelatPitt to document the disturbance.

The question remains, what were the students afraid of people hearing? Why couldn’t they sit through the program and then poke holes in the logic during the question and answer period? It’s not about getting a message across; it’s about not letting the other side be heard. “When Hillel hosted politician Effie Eitam, the then-president of SJP stood up and yelled ‘Shame on Hillel’ for bringing in Eitam, who he accused of being racist,” Samantha explains. Racism seems to be the easy word to use today, an easy way to tar another person’s reputation without actually making a charge.

And it only seems to be getting worse. Anti-Israel sentiments are rising on college campuses. This is why it is vital that Jewish students are empowered with the knowledge of how to answer back when their homeland is being attacked. Students need to be prepared, they need to remember that they may be called upon to defend Israel, and that the gauntlet has been thrown. While it may seem daunting, there is no choice but to respond.

Samantha advises students to focus on “Israel being committed to the peace process and the democratic values that it stands for.” A simple message is often the most effective, “framed in the context, conveyed calmly and articulately,” in a way that makes it hard to paint the speaker as anything but a calm, rational and educated person.

Another vital lesson Samantha learned is that you can’t win them all. “I learned early on that you’re not going to change anyone in SJPs minds, and you’re not going to impact the minds of the unaffiliated campus community by looking extreme and intolerant. It was important to educate and explain and make sure that accurate information was being given,” in order to make sure resources are spent wisely.

Successful organization is vital. “We also had an ongoing campaign that we called Operation Blizzard, in which we distributed information about Israel in every classroom on campus, going to them at night and in the mornings to put info cards on every desk and wrote facts about Israel on the blackboards with the hope of infusing the campus with pro-Israel messages.” There are many organizations like Standwithus, CAMERA and David Project who have these ideas broken down into manageable steps, and are but an e-mail away.

Samantha’s final message was so poignant, I felt I should reproduce it full. “Be strong and confident in your beliefs. Know that even though you may face controversy or be met with opposing points of view in direct contradiction to what you know to be true that your work is important. You standing up gives a voice to the entire pro-Israel community, and the Jewish community, including those who may not be comfortable being an outspoken voice for Israel on campus. Utilize all of the resources available to you-teachers, campus allies, Hillel, national pro-Israel organizations, etc. There are a lot of people out there who want to help you succeed in representing Israel on campus.”

Not to be cliché, but you go, girl!

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