Relationship Building Is Key to Success for Israel Community on Campus

A May 9th New York Times article claims that the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement on campus has “caught many longtime Jewish leaders off guard.”

According the article, the BDS movement’s strength is based on its success building alliances with minority student groups, driving a rift between these groups and Jewish community.

Starting with our strategic shift three years ago, The David Project saw this trend coming. In the years since, we have built a movement of Jewish and non-Jewish college students who are talking about Israel in their own words and building bridges between the pro-Israel community and partners across their campuses.

As part of our strategic shift in 2011, we saw that despite the huge amount of resources being spent on campus by pro-Israel organizations, the impact of these efforts was generally limited to a small subset of the campus community: Jewish and pro-Israel students.

So we changed.

The David Project is an Israel advocacy organization for the millennial age. We created “relational advocacy” which teaches students to be courageous, to step outside their bubbles, and engage their peers in conversations and programming on Israel. We showed our students that Israel can be a topic of discussion that can convene their peers and communities not push them apart.

Unlike the anti-Israel movement on campus, our students build friendships and relationships with campus leaders based on reciprocity and mutual respect, rather than divisive talking points and petitions.

Like the Times article pointed out, this past academic year was rife with challenges and these trends are not going away. But, there is a way to positively impact campus discourse on Israel. Despite a growing BDS movement, this past school year was also The David Project’s most successful to date. On 43 campuses, we worked with hundreds of students who reached thousands of campus leaders in one-on-one conversations on Israel. Our advocates planned more than 100 programs in partnership with more than 700 different student groups from outside the Jewish community.

We also brought 108 Jewish and non-Jewish students from our top 32 campuses to Israel this past January. On our unique Israel mission Israel Uncovered, 32 trip participants were Israel advocates who invited and traveled with 76 non-Jewish campus leaders. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, atheists – students of all backgrounds and experiences traveled together through Israel and saw first-hand the diversity and depth of Israeli society.

After the trip, participants drew from their new friendships and returned to campus telling their peers about Israel first hand. Troy, an LGBT student leader from a prominent southern school, eloquently wrote about our relationship-based approach and his connection to Israel:

“Relational advocacy is a lens through which to view issues and complexities that may be unfamiliar. It means that the chronicles of struggle throughout the histories of different peoples and different locations are connected… at my school, the LGBT community has been strengthened in response to several struggles with our community in our University’s history. We have been able to form a tight knit and active community that has created change on campus, so that my peers and I feel safer and more accepted on campus today than in the past. This understanding has helped me, in turn, to understand Zionism and the need for a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. This group of people has been persecuted throughout history, and having a state that was built in part to protect their people and in part to live a life according to their own Jewish values resonates with me in a deeper way than I could have imagined.”

While the importance of proactive relationship building for Israel is embedded in our mission, the litmus test for our approach is what happens when BDS comes to campus. The New York Times article notes that BDS was defeated at Northeastern, where The David Project partners with Hillel and student leaders. This outcome was only achieved through relationship building between student communities and conversations between friends that addressed how detrimental and divisive BDS is for a campus.

On more than 40 campuses across the United States, The David Project is deeply proud of serving as a catalyst for greater understanding between diverse communities. The importance of having allies that will stand with the pro-Israel community when needed cannot be overstated.

We also believe that, as an organization, we should lead by example. Our staff is composed of young people; Some Jewish and some not, some gay and some straight, all of different backgrounds and heritages, but all with the same goal.

We challenge those around us to take the initiative, step outside your comfort zone, and engage with those outside your own community. We invite you to join us in helping to change the face and the tide of Israel conversation on campus.

Join with The David Project by learning more about what Jewish and non-Jewish students care about when it comes to talking about Israel. You can do that by read our blog or following up on our Facebook or Twitter. But the best thing you can do is take a breath and share with your friends, colleagues, and neighbors why you care about Israel and in doing so find out what they care about, too.

About the Author
Phillip Brodsky became Executive Director of The David Project in July of 2014 after serving four years as The David Project's Campus Director. As Campus Director, Phil oversaw the development and implementation of The David Project's new Israel advocacy strategy of Relational Advocacy. In that time, The David Project has grown its work from 12 campuses to 42 schools across the country and is now working with hundreds of Israel advocates who are reaching thousands of non-Jewish campus leaders. Phil joined The David Project in June 2010 after graduating from the Hornstein Heller Graduate Program at Brandeis University.
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