Interview with Shirel Benji: SSI of UCSB

University of California, Santa Barbara: Shirel Benji

Shirel Benji, who is the Students Supporting Israel (SSI) president at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), is originally from Los Angeles, California. At UCSB, Benji is a third year student where she is majoring in communications. Benji has been to Israel a total of eight times, including going on a birthright trip as well as doing a marketing internship with Onward Israel for two months in Tel Aviv. While being in Israel so many times, Benji has fallen more in love with it – which is one reason she ended up joining SSI.

Being enrolled in private Jewish schools her entire life, Benji always grew up around a Zionist community and was instilled with Zionist values. At her high school, Shalhevet, she even had a leadership position in the Israel club. In addition to this, she was, and still is, very involved with StandWithUs and she attended AIPAC three times. Once she arrived to UCSB, Benji experienced what she says is a culture shock. “I never went to public school so when I went to college and could not find any Israel clubs, it was very shocking to me.” Benji also highlighted that she had to look very hard to find SSI– especially on a campus where not every student is a Zionist.

As a whole, Benji states that she would like to see the people on the UCSB campus be less hostile towards the topic of Israel. “I want to see people engage in dialogue without being scared of protestors.” Benji also mentions that she really wants to see people who genuinely want to learn about Israel in a non-violent manner come to more events and learn about Israel in a different light.

An area the SSI group is working hard on is the fact that UCSB has not passed BDS, and they would like to keep it that way. In the BDS movement website, they state that “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” Whenever the topic of BDS comes up, it stresses out Benji and her fellow board members.  The anti-Israel club at UCSB brings up the topic in an untimely manner and “tries to make BDS seem as though it is something else, when it is actually a movement dedicated to end Israel’s occupation of arab lands.”

Benji says that the tabling events have really worked well at UCSB because they get to show other students the positivity about Israel. For example, Benji says that on the Jewish holiday, Tu B’shvat, they had a tabling event where they gave students seeds to plant a tree Another tabling event they had was in honor of International Women’s Day where they gave people chocolates and roses as well as fact cards that portray the women in Israel and what they have done. With events like these, more people are interested in what SSI is doing and their cause.

Overall, Benji says that “being a part of SSI has made me have tougher skin on a campus towards those who are not pro-Israel.” She also states that she has learned more about Israel from being in SSI and hearing the other side. “I will not back down due to criticism from the other side and I want to stay true to what I am fighting and advocating for.”

In the future, Benji sees herself having her own marketing agency while also working in marketing and advertising. She also wants to be a part of Israel advocacy whether it is with SSI, StandWithUs, or any other pro-Israel organizations.

To the rest of the SSI’ers, Benji says to have a strong united front and show up to every SSI event. Show a strong peaceful presence on campus to show people that you are having fun while at events and engage with others. Lastly, Benji also strongly states that “it is normal to question what your beliefs are when many people are criticizing you and telling you that you are wrong, but if you are passionate about it, then do not back down.”

About the Author
Leor Saghian is a first year student at Santa Monica College majoring in Psychology and is part of the local Students Supporting Israel chapter. Currently, Leor serves as an intern for the national SSI Movement as a publisher and blogger. Leor's family is originally from Iran and following the revolution, immigrated to the United States and Israel.