Photo: Sue Fishkoff
By Sue Fishkoff
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (JTA) — As the Mideast conflict simmers beneath a shaky cease-fire agreement, Jewish student groups are gearing up for what they fear will be a hostile reception on campus this fall. And Jewish fraternities and sororities are a big part of the pro-Israel effort.
“The climate will be very difficult for pro-Israel activists on campus,” said David Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group uniting more than 30 Jewish student organizations.
Harris pointed out that over the summer, student governments, including that of the University of California at Los Angeles, passed anti-Israel resolutions, and campus newspapers from California to Michigan to Florida printed anti-Israel editorials and cartoons.
“If this is what’s happening in the quiet of summer, we’re expecting a much harsher atmosphere when the semester begins,” he said.
In response, major Jewish groups have organized training conferences, put together educational resources and set aside funding to enable their student leaders and on-campus professionals to engage in pro-Israel education and activism as soon as they return to school.
The Jewish Greek community is joining these efforts. Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi, the largest Jewish fraternity and sorority, respectively, brought 90 students to Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 13-15, to learn how to advocate effectively for Israel on campus.
“Our adversaries have been developing anti-Israel campaigns on campus for years,” said Gary Anderson, AEPi’s international president. “We can’t let them win.”
Jewish Greeks actually got involved in campus Israel advocacy five years ago, when AEPi became a founding partner of the Israel on Campus Coalition and ran the first of three “Israel Unplugged” conferences for its brothers. But this year marks a major revving-up and a new focus on structured activism.
It’s the first time that the conference, now called “Israel Amplified,” was open to sororities as well as other Greeks, Jewish and non-Jewish. That was stipulated by the conference’s funder, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
While the first three conferences focused on Israel education, the latest was action-oriented. All chapters of AEPi and AEPhi are pledging to hold three Israel-themed events, reaching outside their own houses to bring the entire Greek system into their efforts.
“For the first time, we’re seeing the potential of Jewish Greek society,” said Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group that has been working with AEPi for almost two decades.
The new advocacy campaigns are also targeting Jewish students not involved in the Greek system.
“We have to be ready for the sleeper kids, the several hundred thousand Jewish kids on campus who are not involved,” said AEPi’s executive director, Andy Borans. “They will come out of the woodwork because of what’s happened” in Israel this summer, he predicted.
Jewish fraternities and sororities are already set up to do this kind of work, their leaders point out. They’re tied into a large network of Greeks, many of whom are socially oriented, focused on philanthropy and involved in campus politics.
“Greeks are able to mobilize for a cause better than any other group on campus,” AEPi staffer Colin Sutker told some two dozen students during a workshop in Louisville. “Take that power,” he urged the students, “and harness it for Israel advocacy.”
The conference is “the kickoff of a yearlong initiative,” said Jen Kraus, a Schusterman Foundation fellow.
National Greek leaders will follow up with their chapters throughout the year, offering resources and a little nudging.
As an added incentive, participants didn’t receive their travel reimbursements for the conference until they met with staffers at the end of the two-day training and wrote detailed action plans for events they plan to hold at their campuses.
Suzanne Solomon of the University of Arizona in Phoenix hopes to erect a “huge poster” listing Israel’s democratic freedoms.
Alex Callen at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said his chapter will read out the names of Israeli terror victims from a public plaza, and will ask other fraternities, sororities and non-Greek student organizations to sponsor names, with the money going to AEPi’s three Israel charities.
Arya Marvazi at the University of California at San Diego is planning events on human rights, technological innovation and the environment, and will invite the presidents of campus organizations active in those fields to meet privately with the speakers beforehand, so non-Jewish students can see that Israelis share their concerns.
Students were urged to think beyond the usual political events to focus on Israeli culture, science, medicine, even sports and food — anything to draw in students with no particular interest in Israel.
“We’re asking them to think about Israel in a new way,” said AEPi’s Jewish programming director, Phillip Brodsky. “You don’t have to knock on someone’s door with the Israeli flag under your arm.”
Students at the University of Southern California spoke of organizing an Israeli techno party to highlight the country’s vibrant cultural scene. The University of California at Santa Cruz chapter wants to bring in a speaker from the Jewish National Fund, capitalizing on Santa Cruz’s interest in environmentalism.
Students at another school spoke of hiring popular Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, and another chapter is planning a dinner party with other historically ethnic fraternities to highlight each one’s national cuisine.
“Somewhere in this room is Mr. and Mrs. Louisville, and they don’t know anything about Israel,” said conference speaker Larry Weinberg, president of Israel21c, a news agency that promotes positive coverage of Israeli innovations. Then “Mrs. Louisville’s doctor gives her a capsule” that contains a miniature camera, and is able to detect her cancer early enough for successful treatment.
“As soon as you tell her that capsule came from Israel, Israel will become the most relevant thing in their lives,” Weinberg said. “That’s what you need to do.”
Some students already have begun putting their plans into action. Last month, Tufts University AEPi member Ari Allen launched a Web site “to fight the world’s collective amnesia” about Israel.
He has posted information about the Mideast conflict “to give people tools to rebut arguments,” and will raise money for Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, by selling Israeli army-themed dog tags.
Allen said he’s a little nervous about the attitude he’ll face on campus this fall, even at Tufts, which “is a quarter Jewish,” he estimated.
“It’s going to be much more than a physical war, it’s going to be a war of ideas,” he said. “I didn’t really understand that until this crisis broke out.”