There is no shortage of national pro-Israel organizations that are working with students, but these are run by professionals rather than by the students themselves. For years, students have talked about the need to have their own organization, but they could never get their act together. That all began to change when two Israelis studying at the University of Minnesota got frustrated by the lack of reaction by their peers to Israel’s detractors and formed the first chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI).
The motivation for starting SSI began in the spring of 2012 when anti-Israel students at the University of Minnesota organized an Israel hate week that had two events per day, a mock wall, a die-in and other activities designed to make Jewish students uncomfortable and spread Palestinian propaganda. Ilan Sinelnikov and Valarie Chazin were born in Israel and had moved to the United States with their families. Even as transplanted Israelis, they felt a need to stand up and defend Israel, but their peers were afraid of escalating the situation and did not want to be visible. “As Israelis,” Sinelnikov said, “we didn’t accept it.”
Sinelnikov and Chazin formed SSI to be proactive rather than defensive, unlike many other organizations they saw on campus. “Our goals were to be student led and visible,” according to Sinelnikov, and they gradually recruited more students, Jews and non-Jews (today 20% of all SSI members are not Jewish), to join SSI. By 2014, SSI had become one of the largest campus organizations.
As divestment campaigns were ramping up, Sinelnikov and Chazin asked why no pro-Israel resolutions were being introduced in student governments. They decided to go on offense and proposed a bill supporting Israel that was adopted. This became a model for other campuses. Earlier this month, Texas A&M became the eighth campus to adopt a pro-Israel resolution. In fact, this was the second time the Aggies did so. That resolution says, in part:
“Israel has been and continues to be one of America’s strongest allies.”
“[The] Student Senate stands with Jewish and Israeli students as a valued member of the Aggie family.”
“While the Student Senate will respect the right of all students to freedom of speech, it recommends that no Texas A&M University student organization support, contribute to, or receive contributions from BDS.”
After their success in Minnesota, students from around the country began to contact Sinelnikov and Chazin. They realized that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the principal anti-Israel organization on most campuses, shared the same logo, agenda and generally synchronized their activities whereas Jewish students had different names, little support and were facing SJP alone. “So, we told students that SSIs should work together,” Sinelnikov said, and within seven months 16 chapters were started at campuses such as the University of Texas, UCLA and Pace University. It was very organic, with students bringing in friends on different campuses. Now SSI has 40 chapters in the U.S., Canada and Israel and a national student committee that facilitates monthly calls with the chapter presidents.
Although the chapters now are in regular communication, they all recognize that each campus is different, so students are given room to develop their own policies. The common goals, according to Sinelnikov, are to provide “a clear and confident voice for Israel and to support grassroots activism.” Confidence is one characteristic that is common among Israelis who are not afraid to show the flag and are not content to sit in their dorm rooms. SSI seeks to instill that confidence in American students. “If the initiatives don’t come from students,” Sinelnikov adds, “no change will happen.”
Sinelnikov distinguishes SSI from J Street. “We’re not here to tell Israelis what to do from 5,000 miles away.” Using a football analogy, he says “Israel is like the quarterback and SSI are the lineman protecting the QB. We’re not trying to be the quarterback.” Unlike J Street, he says, we support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and do not dictate what Israel should do.
SSI focuses on being proactive, whether it is hosting events or tabling. “Different students come up with ideas and SSI polishes them,” says Sinelnikov. He cited as an example a campaign devised by students at the University of Arizona highlighting the 50 years since Jerusalem’s unification, which was replicated on other campuses. In April, SSI is bringing Israelis representing Morocco, Ethiopia, Mexico and Russia to eight campuses to highlight Israel as a nation of immigrants and teach students about the Law of Return.
Sinelnikov is frustrated that their pro-Israel activities don’t get as much attention as the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign. SSI has passed nine pro-Israel resolutions since 2014, but, he says, it’s not as exciting as reporting about BDS.
The challenge for SSI is that their members are still a minority voice on campus. Sinelnikov says they must keep growing and building coalitions. “Our punch needs to be 200 times our size.” He wants to make sure that students don’t wait for bad things to happen and to engage in year-round activism. “We need to be active,” he says, “even if there is no anti-Israel activity.”
As with any pro-Israel organization, education is critical. SSI works to keep the membership informed of the latest news. They held a national conference in December in San Diego and will be hosting a regional seminar in New York.
The group has also been keeping track of its alumni and has a list of 108, about a quarter of whom have made aliyah. “That’s the next level of advocacy,” says Sinelnikov.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.