How can it be that we expect our students to operate in a more sophisticated manner than we do ourselves? Yes, we do.
In my role supporting campus communities in promoting a positive climate regarding Israel, I work with many student leaders and the professionals who mentor them. But I also frequently encounter non-students—community members, parents, alumni and others—who care deeply about Israel and how it is portrayed on- and off-campus. What emerges time and again is that the well-intentioned off-campus community frequently is at a loss about how to promote Israel effectively.
For example, at two separate community leadership convenings during Israel’s recent operation in Gaza, I heard several leaders of American Jewish organizations lament their lack of connection to the leadership of many growing sectors in the broader American community. They knew that the demographic future of America—diverse, multicultural, comprised of historically minority ethnic and racial groups from Asia, Africa and South and Central America—represented communities that historically had little experience of Judaism and Israel. This emerging face of twenty-first century America is of an America that does not know the Jewish community. From at least among some in the Jewish community, I heard uncertainty and despair: How are we supposed to connect to these new leaders?
Students: It’s time to teach your elders.
Students in the campus environment are living today in the future that the rest of the community will face tomorrow. Jewish and pro-Israel students live in communities that are diverse and multicultural. Their friends and classmates come from all walks of life and from heritages, faith communities and ethnicities that are truly global. The campus environment places a premium on exploring others’ heritages as well as one’s own, and that exploration takes place outside of the classroom as much as it does within.
Some of the most effective efforts to reach student leaders of other communities on campus, as well as to reach unengaged Jewish students, are informal and personal. They take place not in organized programs, lecture halls, or even on the quad, but in students’ homes, fraternity houses, dorm rooms and dining halls. In these intimate settings, students get to know one another better, understand each other’s beliefs and values, and identify the beliefs and values they share in common. Such efforts are as much about communicating the values of caring about others as they are about substantive information.
While it is settings like these in which effective engagement around Israel thrives, ironically for those despairing about the Jewish community’s ability to engage on this issue, the Jewish community itself has historically thrived in such settings, too. Since the time of Abraham, the Jewish people has placed a premium on hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, and it remains core to the Jewish identity to invite guests for Shabbat, holidays and other festivities. The act of inviting guests, and engaging them in real conversation—taking an interest in them, and sharing one’s own interests—is as effective for “outreach” to those of other communities as it is for “in-reach” within the Jewish community.
In the case of Israel, when the American Jewish community engages in this effort, it also adds the important element of making tangible the human connection to a distant place that most Americans will never see for themselves. We know from our personal experience that while people are capable of thinking many things about people, places and events half a world away, they respect the views and interests of their neighbors and friends.
For these reasons, some of the most effective campus Israel engagement initiatives of the past year have been through “Israel across campus”-themed Shabbat dinners and other social settings. At such events, Jews and non-Jews alike are invited to eat together, relax and participate in a discussion that is framed around texts, images or questions that all participants can access and discuss equally. Local Hillel foundations frequently sponsor such events, particularly for “in-reach” to unaffiliated Jews; but the methodology works equally as effectively with non-Jews.
Opening the discussion and allowing people to share and ask questions in a relaxed, private and accepting environment encourages frank discussion. Particularly in the wake of intense and emotional moments accompanying violent conflict such as we recently experienced, these settings allow students to reflect on their immediate responses, to explore the thoughts of others and to incorporate the knowledge that others can offer.
Inviting people into one’s home and engaging them around Israel is not limited to Jews. Non-Jews are just as capable of hosting the conversation; explaining one’s interest in and connection to Israel from a non-Jewish perspective can be a powerful and eye-opening testimony for others. But one advantage the Jewish community possesses in leading in such efforts is that it provides a tangible and ongoing address for others to bring their concerns and interests from other realms. Gaining support in this way—truly, the most effective form of political advocacy—also involves give and take that only an identifiable constituency can provide.
Jewish communities outside of campus should be able to follow such practices; certainly, some communities already do, and do so very effectively. But for those that struggle or despair at finding a model, relax; your students are ready to teach you.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat.