Craig Abramson of Princeton, a student at George Washington University, encountered an anti-Israel “apartheid wall” on the main lawn of the campus a couple of months ago.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow. That’s not true,’” he said, remembering the literature that compared Israel to once-racist South Africa. “What should I do?”
If he came across the same activity now, he said, he wouldn’t wonder.
“I would say, ‘Israel is not an apartheid state. There are several minority parties in Israel’s parliament, and Israel is one of the few democratic states in the region and the most just by far. All citizens have full rights.
“It’s absolutely not an apartheid state.’”
Abramson just returned from an Israel advocacy training mission for college students sponsored by Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva and Orthodox outreach program. The two-week trip offered a crash course in history, politics, current events, and Middle Eastern diplomacy. Abramson, like all the participants, was required to organize a pro-Israel project, campaign, or event on campus upon his return.
The program, Hasbara Fellowships, was designed by Livingston resident Elliot Mathias in 2001, when he was a student at Aish’s yeshiva in Jerusalem, specifically to help college students fight anti-Zionism on campuses.
In September 2001 Mathias landed a grant for $50,000 from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. By December he had organized the first group of 30 Hasbara fellows, as they would come to be known, and began training students to advocate for Israel.
On that first trip, the students paid part of the trip’s cost, and Aish HaTorah helped as well, but 80 percent was covered by the Foreign Ministry grant. Now Aish picks up the entire cost.
Since 2001, nearly 2,000 students from 200 college campuses have become Hasbara fellows. The budget had grown to $1.6 million by 2007 but since the economic downturn has shrunk to $1.2 million. There are 10 full-time staff members running the trips at Aish HaTorah, including Mathias, who runs six to eight trips each year for 250-300 students per year.
Pro-Israel advocacy for college students has been a growth industry in recent years, supported by Jewish philanthropists alarmed by a spike of pro-Palestinian activity on campuses and polls showing Israel fading as a priority among Jews 35 and under. Almost 30 groups, including Aish, belong to the Israel on Campus Coalition. Some of the better-known groups offering direct advocacy training are Hillel International, Stand With Us, and the Legacy Heritage Fund.
Like many of these groups, Mathias acknowledged that Hasbara Fellowships does not always show the full spectrum of debate in Israel.
“We expose the students to various viewpoints across the political spectrum,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But like I said, the goal of the program is to give students the information and tools to deal with the fundamental issues they are facing on campus — i.e., that Israel has a right to exist and a right to defend itself — that 90 percent of the spectrum agree with.”
When Hasbara Fellowships does bring groups critical of Israeli policies — such as B’Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors human rights in the occupied territories — it is mainly to hone talking points in response.
“These are arguments that anti-Israel students often use, and it’s important that our students hear it and know how to deal with these situations,” Mathias wrote. Students need to know “Israel isn’t perfect, but as a liberal democracy, Israel deals with these imperfections in open ways.”
Students are also brought to settlements in the West Bank, including Gush Etzion and Hebron, “so they have a first-hand understanding of what is happening in those places and what the people living there believe,” Mathias said.
‘We had fun’
Two other New Jersey students attended the training sessions: Jessica Blank of Livingston, who grew up at the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center there and attends Barnard College, and Anna Richlin of Flanders, a student at the University of Rochester, who grew up at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. Anna attended the program Dec. 20-Jan. 5; Jessica and Craig went together Dec. 27-Jan. 12.
All three students have been to Israel before, and all three commented on how different this trip was from any they had taken before.
(“Most students have already been to Israel. These trips are not for beginners,” Mathias said.)
Blank, who said she gained a strong background on Israel both at home and at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, sits on the board of the Hillel Israel Committee at Barnard. The Hasbara program, she said, “showed Israel in a whole different way.” Instead of seeing tourist sites, she saw aid work being done by Israelis.
“There were so many things I didn’t know,” she said. “There are so many ways Israel helps the world, from Hurricane Katrina to the tsunami; there are even people in Haiti helping out there now. I want people to know about these things and not focus on the negatives.”
Richlin is Israel chair of the Chabad group on her campus. While she had visited Israel several times on trips sponsored by Hadassah’s Young Judaea group, Aish’s was the first trip she was on with Orthodox students.
Highlights for Richlin was standing in Sderot, seeing how close people there live to the border with Gaza, and standing in a city divided by the green line, where one side is Israel and the other disputed territory.
“I didn’t understand that there are other people who live in Israel who have ties to the land,” she said, referring to the Palestinians.
On the other hand, she also learned that the Palestinian government is “corrupt” and that its influence and power “precludes the people from living in a peaceful way.” Because of the government, she said, “they are taught to believe they should use hate and violence.”
She said there was little discussion of the potential for corruption on the Israel side.
Participation in the program is competitive. There are two-three applicants for every slot on the trip, according to Mathias.
All participants are obligated to undertake a pro-Israel activity on their campuses upon their return. Richlin said she plans to organize an Israel Peace Week toward the end of February. Blank said she wants to focus on Israeli service organizations, like Save a Child’s Heart, which helps children get needed heart surgery. She hopes to bring the organization’s Valentine’s Day campaign to campus. Abramson has not yet settled on his project.
Abramson underscored that no trip to Israel is ever only about education. Asked about the highlights, he offered his own list: “The shwarma. The kids on the trip were great, really smart, and enthusiastic. The lectures at Aish HaTorah at the Kotel overlooking the city, shwarma luncheon on the roof, going to Ben Yehuda Street at night.
“Did I mention we had fun?”