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Becoming a Student Advocate for Israel

May 9, 2009 | by

With some basic knowledge of the dimensions of the Middle East conflict, any student can speak out on campus.

Within a few weeks of arriving at Wesleyan University last fall, I was informed by my otherwise knowledgeable classmates that the world's Jewish population exceeds one billion, that Israel is larger than England, and that Jews rule America. One afternoon, I attempted to enter the Campus Center -- only to be obstructed by Students for Palestine allegedly simulating an Israeli checkpoint. At a Free Palestine activist conference, speakers distributed flyers contending that Jews conspire to run the world, that Israel and America staged the September 11 attacks, and that Israel controls the United States.

Unfortunately, Wesleyan is not . At many liberal arts colleges and universities, students and professors alike take pride in demonizing Israel. Small groups of radicals impact the whole campus. Even among students who have little knowledge of the Middle East conflict, many accept the charge that Israel is a brutal colonial regime, needlessly oppressing the indigenous Palestinians.

So I returned home to Boston this summer determined to help refocus campus discussion. Last week, I joined 29 other freshmen and sophomores at a 5-day training session hosted by the Boston based David Project, a group that promotes a fair and honest understanding of the Middle East Conflict.

An honest advocate for Israel, we learned, should focus on three things: defending Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, safeguarding Israel from the double standard to which it is so often subjected, and reaching out to those who would otherwise remain silent.

The training session, led by Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, began by examining the conventional assumptions regarding the conflict. Three dimensions of the Middle East Conflict merit reframing: The physical realm, in which conventional wisdom holds that the conflict is simply an Israeli-Palestinian one; the historical realm, where conventional wisdom holds that the conflict began with the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967; and the moral realm, where Israel's "Western" status becomes a justification for the application of double standards and for unfairly and disproportionately singling it out for moral scrutiny.

By "reframing" and examining the broader context, we developed a framework for understanding the Middle East conflict. Physically, the conflict is regional, not local; historically, the conflict predates the occupation and even the establishment of Israel -- its roots lie in continuous Arab rejection of Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East; morally, all countries must be held to the same standards-the world's integrity must be questioned when the international community denounces Israel for human rights violations while Sudan and Ethiopia massacre their citizens, while the slave-trade runs rampant in Sudan, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates and through parts Central America, South America and East Asia, and while Egypt, Iraq, Syria and others oppress their substantial Christian minorities.

With ARM, we address accusations directly, reframe them in terms of the bigger picture, and send a message about the conflict's root causes.

We also learned a key technique -- dubbed ARM -- for engaging in constructive conversations in a hostile environment. With ARM, we address accusations directly, reframe them in terms of the bigger picture, and send a message about the conflict's root causes. I was challenged to respond to a commonly heard accusation on campus: "The occupation is the cause of terrorism."

My response: "This is a common misconception. Terrorists have been targeting Israel since long before the occupation. Hundreds of Israeli civilians died in the 1950s as a result of terrorism. In fact, terrorist attacks on Jews in what is now Israel began long before Israel's establishment. In 1929, Haj Amin Al-Husseini incited Arab mobs to massacre over 60 Jews in Hebron. For occupation to end, the Palestinian Authority must recognize Israel's right to exist, condemn terrorism, and put an end to incitement in schools and mosques."

ARM responses are effective because they shift the burden of proof onto the accuser. Not only does ARM help counter the small but vocal group of anti-Israel extremists, but it also enables the silent majority on campus to speak. Many non-active students, particularly Jews, feel strongly about Israel. Yet they are reluctant to speak out due to a lack of knowledge, intimidation, and the false perception that being pro-Israel contradicts their liberal values.
With some basic knowledge of the dimensions of the Middle East conflict, any student can speak out, especially with ARM at their disposal. And by appreciating Israel as a liberal democracy, progressive students can overcome intimidation from both professors and students, and can support Israel without feeling conflicted.

As I prepare to return to Wesleyan in September, I am confident that we can affect the overall impression of Israel on campuses. Even apolitical Jewish students heading to college should consider attending David Project training sessions. We can truly alter the opinions of our classmates, many of whom know little about Jews or Israel, and most of whom remain impressionable.

We may just be undergraduates, but we should think about how our current actions will affect our future. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

This article originally appeared on

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