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Jerseyan honored for campus activism
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Jerseyan honored for campus activism

Tulane senior earns CAMERA award for pro-Israel efforts

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Peruse the “Tulane University for Israel” Facebook page and you will find — besides what Israeli scientists are up to, how Israeli comedians send up Saturday Night Live, and recordings of historic events — a wealth of material that can be used to counter anti-Israel propaganda.

What you won’t find is information on Judaism. That’s because Yonatan Kaplan, a Tulane senior from Springfield, doesn’t want to present Israel as only a Jewish issue.

He wants to reach the whole university. “TUFI is not just a Jewish organization. I don’t want people to think: Oh, I’m not Jewish. That’s not for me,” he said.

Kaplan has revitalized TUFI New Orleans campus from a defunct organization to a vibrant force promoting Israel through campus-wide events, high-profile speakers, and engaged students. Last fall, he received a message from the Tulane administration alerting him that in a survey, over 100 incoming freshmen had expressed interest in TUFI.

And now he has been recognized for his achievements from the organization he credits with his success: CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. Known for its aggressive Israel advocacy efforts in monitoring media outlets for dubious anti-Israel messages, it has in recent years launched two initiatives to reach students on college campuses: the Campus Fellows Program and the Campus Activist Project. Kaplan has been involved with both.

On April 21, he received CAMERA’s David Bar-Ilan Award for Outstanding Campus Activism at the organization’s annual dinner, held at Chelsea Piers in New York City.

At the event, Eliana Rudee of Scripps College in California received the David Bar-Ilan Award for Outstanding Student Leadership. “The students have done terrific work to educate others on campus about Israel and to counter false accusations leveled against the Jewish state. We’re very proud of their dedicated and successful efforts,” said Aviva Slomich, CAMERA’s campus director.

Kaplan was already involved in pro-Israel activities when he discovered CAMERA’s campus advocacy efforts. He was looking for ways to get back to Israel. Unlike many of his friends, he was ineligible for a Birthright Israel trip because of the three-month stint he had spent in Israel with his alma mater, what is now Golda Och Academy in West Orange, during his senior year. When he found the CAMERA fellowship, which pays a stipend and provides a trip to Israel, he told NJJN, “I figured I was doing the work anyway. I might as well get paid for it and earn a trip to Israel.”

He was selected as a CAMERA fellow for the academic year 2011-12, requiring him to organize three Israel events on campus during the year and write three articles for the university newspaper; the following year, his group was selected as a CAMERA Campus Activist Project.

Both programs provided just what Kaplan needed. “I had ideas and people. What CAMERA provided was contacts for dynamic speakers and funding.”

He was able to bring to campus Ishmael Khaldi, Israel’s first Bedouin diplomat; Gil Hoffman, the Israeli journalist (and NJJN correspondent); Bentzion Gruber, an IDF colonel who speaks about ethics in the Israeli military; Mitchell Bard, a foreign policy expert specializing in U.S.-Middle East policy; and David Nesenoff, the rabbi who filmed reporter Helen Thomas infamously telling Jews “to get the hell out of Palestine.”

Recently, partnering with several other university organizations, Kaplan helped put up, in the middle of the campus, a Talk Israel Tent. Visitors found representatives of groups available to talk about myriad aspects of Israel. For example, members of an engineering fraternity talked about solar power in Israel, while a women’s group focused on powerful Israeli women. “There were lots of people talking about Israel, and it kicked off our Israel Week on campus,” said Kaplan. “We couldn’t have done it without CAMERA’s help.”

Kaplan, who grew up at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield and attends Chabad events in New Orleans, estimates that he has a core group of seven other student leaders committed to TUFI who can take over when he graduates in May; 50-80 students regularly attend TUFI events.

He’s been lucky. “We’ve created a really good brand name for Israel on campus, and we have no vocal opposition to Israel. It’s a unique situation,” he said.

As the academic year winds down, Kaplan said, he is looking for a job either in New Orleans or the New York City area. Eventually, he said, he plans to attend medical school.

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