A table filled with candy, flyers, and snacks is the first thing that students see when they walk into the Student Union at the University of Minnesota. Students line up to see what all the commotion is about, and are able to spend a few minutes learning more about Israel, while speaking with knowledgeable members of Students Supporting Israel. When interviewing Ilana Blyakher, the current president of SSI of the University of Minnesota, she talked me through the process of their events and tablings.
One event that was a great success was bringing Artists4Israel to their campuses, “we set tables up outside and brought artists that do graffiti art on T-shirts. It’s a great opportunity to expose SSI because students walk by and see the event, and are encouraged to come and join.” When they come up to the table, students can get a custom graffiti shirt that says SSI on the back, and are able to listen to Israeli music. “While they’re waiting for their shirts to be made, we are able to engage the students in conversation, and use that time to educate them”.
Ilana, who is double majoring in computer science and math, got involved in SSI after her freshman year. She began going to board meetings, and in her sophomore year became the SSI Representative in her student government. The next year, she ran for president, and worked up to where she is today. Israel is something that Ilana has always had on her mind, and from summer camps to synagogues, she was able to learn more about what it truly means to be a Zionist. “At camp, we always had Israeli counselors that would lead activities on Israel and exposed us to the great things happening there; the research and technology that is growing at a fast pace”.
Coming from parents that immigrated from Ukraine, Ilana has had many influences in her life, and her relatives in Israel are one of them. Being able to go to Israel with Birthright and extending the trip to be with her family has shown her what it truly is like to live in Israel; “people outside of Israel think that it is a war zone, but I feel safest when I am there. The cities are just like the cities we have here, everyone coexists; you can run into Jews, Arabs, and Christians on the street and it’s normal”.
Being able to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in the country she is so passionate about defending has made her more determined to get the word out, and to use SSI to expose other students to the truth, “The biggest goal for my campus would be to see more people knowledgeable on the topic, and willing to the accurate information instead of blindly accepting what is being shown on the media”.
The fact that Ilana knows that her voice is being heard is something that has always driven her. Being able to create a change on campus everyday is something that she has always been thankful for, “SSI has helped me advocate for something that I am so passionate about. I came into college knowing that I cared for Israel, and as I got more involved in SSI, I was able to learn how to share my knowledge and passion with other people”.
On campus, Ilana has been surprised by what she has seen. SSI events have always been an opportunity to educate students and create an open forum for discussion; however, “the first speaker event we held this school year, we brought in IDF soldiers, and there was a protest outside of the building, and when the doors were opened, as people were coming in, we could hear the protestors shouting things against Israel at us”.
Recognizing that there are students on campus who hold biased views that are greatly impacted by the media’s selective coverage, SSI at Minnesota makes a conscious effort to combat that reality, “we try and engage students in conversation…we encourage them to become informed, and are always open to answering any difficult questions they may have”. When I asked Ilana what she’s learned since becoming a part of SSI, she was quick to answer, “I’ve learned that it’s important to stand up for things that matter, and that Israel can be important to me, yet I can still engage in conversation about it on a broader scale”.
A BDS referendum was put on the ballot and was passed by the students last year, “students didn’t really know about the elections, so for us, getting the word out was difficult when those who put up the referendum had many supporters in one room”. The referendum has gone to the board of regents, who is currently not acting on the referendum, however, it shows the mindset that the students have in terms of Israel and BDS, “for the most part, people are just uninformed”.
When I asked Ilana where she sees herself in 10 years, she didn’t have a specific answer but knew that, “regardless of what it is, I hope to still be vocal about my passion for Israel”. She follows the simple belief that reminding oneself of why they are passionate about what they are passionate about will in turn make advocating for their beliefs simple. “If you know why you have such strong beliefs, then spreading that passion is natural”.