High school students explore how to answer Israel’s critics on campus
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High school students explore how to answer Israel’s critics on campus

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From left at Sunday’s proram are Rabbi Ely Allen, Adam Nudelman, Melanie Rice, and Hannah Marcus. Miriam Allenson

As teens get set to head to college, where they’re likely to discover that Israel issues push hot buttons and controversy rages around them, community leaders and teachers have been trying to prepare them for what they will see and hear. During a Sunday bagel brunch at Ma’ayanot, 100 high school juniors and seniors were led through exercises designed to teach them to respond effectively to Israel’s critics and provided with folders packed with information. Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, called the meeting “just the first step in a program that we hope will prepare students” when they are confronted by “anti-Israel protestors on campuses around the country.”

Etzion Neuer, director of the New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League, told the gathering of recent anti-Israel activities on college campuses. He said he’s aware that most students don’t focus on those things because they are too busy, but, he added, they should be prepared to hear versions of history about Israel that is different from the narrative they were taught, and they will need to respond properly. “You are going to have to know your history and learn how to get your message across,” he said. He also suggested that students speak about all the positive things that Israel offers the world, so as to stop framing Israel in terms of conflict.

The facilitators were Bess Adler, principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies; Avi Posnick, regional coordinator of Stand With Us, New York; Rabbis David Scher, who teaches at The Frisch School in Paramus, and Ely Allen, director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey; Sara Lewis, teen director at the JCC on the Palisades; and Yoel Kaplan, vice principal of BCHSJS. Each student was given a worksheet covering five scenarios – which turned out to be true – and assigned to a group. Each facilitator addressed each group speed dating style – after a 15-minute session, each group moved to another facilitator and situation.

Students in the “yellow” group followed by the Standard were from Fair Lawn, Paramus, Old Tappan, and Ridgewood. They were headed to SUNY Binghamton, Northeastern, Rutgers, Syracuse, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. The group also included a parent, Marci Spiro of Woodcliff Lake, whose children attend Frisch. She came to learn facts to teach her children, who would soon be off to college.

Allen’s session focused on a student rally against Israel with a small group of Jewish counter-protestors in Albuquerque, N.M. A Jewish student who felt the protests were relatively tame was interviewed by a reporter. When the story broke, more than 50 percent of the story was sympathetic to the anti-Israel protestors, not a single Israel supporter’s quote was used, and the Jewish students were portrayed as aggressive and intimidating. The interviewed student thought that was unfair and wanted to respond.

Allen asked the students what they would have said to the reporter and whether it was appropriate for student groups to sponsor such rallies. Students were also asked what they would have done if they had heard about the rally while it was in the planning stages, whether they would attend, even if it offended them, and why or why not. What would they tell the student who wanted to respond to the article?

Students were advised to learn Jewish history, to seek support from Jewish groups in the community, like the ADL and UJA, and respond to the newspaper reporter by writing letters to the editor and blog posts, as well as using other ways to send the message. Students were also advised to make short, to-the-point sound bites and to educate themselves about Israel.

One session dealt with the heckling of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine and another on what to do when you know a campus organization is sponsoring a guest speaker who preaches hatred. Scher asked students how they would respond if they blogged a pro-Israel message and received 30 comments loaded with threats like “We know where you live – you’d better watch your back.” Most said they would ignore the trolls. They were advised to file a report with the police and campus security.

A session led by Posnik of Stand With Us concerned a professor of “Politics in the Middle East” who sent an e-mail to all his students showing Jews lined up for the gas chambers one side of the screen and Arabs waiting at a checkpoint in Gaza on the other. Only one person in class was willing to openly disagree with him, but his term paper, worth 30 percent of his class grade, was due the following week and he worried about expressing his true opinion because he believed his professor would lower his grade.

The yellow group students suggested forwarding the professor’s e-mail to everyone until it went viral. Others said they wouldn’t do anything because they feared for their grades. Another suggested approaching the academic review committee if the student’s grade was lowered. The story was a true one, and the student did indeed forward the e-mail until it went viral. Two other students had dropped out of the class in protest, and the incident, which took place at UC Santa Barbara, is under investigation.

As each session ended, students were advised to make contact with local Jewish community groups when they were confronted by anti-Israel action and to join with other Jewish students and student groups.

When the workshops were over, Alyssa Walker of Pompton Lakes High School told The Jewish Standard, “It’s a new thing for me to have to deal with anti-Semitism that’s so extreme. It’s hard to know how to prepare for something so intense. But I need to know how to respond properly, because I believe in standing up for what I believe in. I can’t be an idle bystander, and this afternoon helped me start dealing with it.”

In addition to the JCRC, the New Jersey ADL, BCHSJS, Hillel, and Ma’ayanot, sponsors were the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism, Bergen County YJCC, Center for Israel Engagement of UJA-NNJ, Frisch, Jewish Educational Services of UJA-NNJ, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, North Jersey Board of Rabbis, and Torah Academy of Bergen County.

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