AJC official: Students need more nuanced understanding of Israel

AJC official: Students need more nuanced understanding of Israel

Young people must be given ‘real emotional connection’

Seffi Kogen told those gathered for the May 9 annual dinner of AJC Central New Jersey that today’s generation of students requires a new approach to Israel, one that favors “a real emotional connection” rather than “cheap factoids.” Stories about Israel’s invention of cherry tomatoes and instant messaging and its success in creating forests, he said, simply don’t cut it. 

The event, at the Cherry Valley Country Club in Skillman, drew about 65 people.

“There is reason to take pride in each of these things,” said Kogen, AJC’s national director of Campus Affairs and of the new Leaders for Tomorrow program for high school students. “But they cannot replace the soul-stirring passion elicited by an Israel on the brink of destruction, or the intense swell of pride that comes from a three-way handshake on the White House lawn.”

Kogen, 27, is concerned that many Jews from his own generation do not feel a connection to the Jewish state, or may have joined Jewish Voice for Peace (a left-wing activist organization that, critics say, encourages Jewish opposition to Israel) — even though they have grown up with strong connections to the Jewish community. “For too long we have told them that Israel is a Jewish Disneyland, a magical place where nothing bad could happen — and even the McDonald’s is kosher,” he said.

The parents and grandparents of today’s young people, Kogen said, have made the mistake of viewing Israel as a cause; since “a cause must be perfect,” when it gets blemished or demands a morally complex assessment, he said, “it is all too easy to throw that cause away, or even turn on it.” 

“We may be jeopardizing future generations’ connection to Israel the country by demanding allegiance to Israel the cause,” he said, adding that instead we need to view Israel as a complex country and give young people “space to acknowledge that Israel can be wrong.”

Kogen is highly critical of Israel advocacy training programs that prepare young people to defend the country by providing them with lists of “10 reasons why Israel is not an apartheid state.” He instead described the more nuanced approach used by AJC, which involves building coalitions: “At this moment, with anti-Semitism once again surfacing not just in Europe, but here at home as well, we need to pour our energies not into teaching our young people to identify enemies, but rather to find their friends, to stand up against the hatred of the marginalized.”

At the dinner, AJC Central New Jersey honored Hillel partners on the Rutgers and Princeton campuses for their dedicated efforts on behalf of students. Randy Hubert, dinner cochair with her husband, Steven, presented the award to Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel. Steven Peskin, dinner cochair with his wife, Suzanne, presented the honor to Marni Blitz, associate director of the Center for Jewish Life: Princeton Hillel.

Blitz told NJJN that things have been “pretty quiet” this year on the Princeton campus regarding anti-Israel activity. A Yom Ha’Atzmaut barbecue drew 200 people, she said, and although they had prepared in case of protests or objections, nothing happened. 

Rebecca Sobel, student president of Princeton Hillel, agreed that there has been “a relatively positive attitude toward Israel as a whole, and there has not been any conversation about BDS,” the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Sobel mentioned the positive connections created on campus via the David Project, which encourages regular, documented engagement between Jewish and non-Jewish students. 

When a potentially divisive event happens, Blitz said, “you already have a bond with them. You are already connected and have respect for each other.” 

Speaking after he accepted the award for Rutgers Hillel, Getraer said that the university did face some problems this year when it was revealed that three Rutgers professors “had engaged in some sort of public anti-Semitic act or speech.” He added that AJC NJ regional director David Levy met with Rutgers president Robert Barchi to convince him of the seriousness of the professors’ actions and remarks.

At the same time, Getraer said, “the majority of students I know feel a connection to Israel, mostly positive, some ambivalent; a small minority,” he added, “are troubled by their relationship with Israel.”

The students “are curious, want to learn and to know things in a sophisticated manner,” Getraer said. “We need to be there to help them on their journey.” Israel must be presented to them, he added, “with the same emotional and intellectual sophistication and maturity we expect them to grow into.”

In 2011, Rutgers created the Center for Israel Engagement, Getraer said, in response to incidents in which “pro-Israel students were being harassed and physically attacked, and the entire Jewish community felt it was being isolated by the rest of the university because there was such a tremendous anti-Israel activity.”

The center’s role, Getraer told NJJN, is “to help students learn about Israel, to learn why Israel exists and what it means, and on an individual basis to help students find out what their connection to Israel is. 

“We don’t focus on things that divide us but on things that unite us.”

Rutgers also takes about 150 students a year to Israel through the free Birthright trips and another 40 or 50 on other programs, and — through the Hillel Israel Leadership Initiative — offers a trip for non-Jewish students who want to delve into the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“A positive relationship to the State of Israel is essential for a healthy Jewish identity,” Getraer said. “Israel historically is where we came from; it is our home.” Israel and American Jews “are all deeply connected both by our past and our shared fate.”

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