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Workshop preps students for pro-Israel activism
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Workshop preps students for pro-Israel activism

Hasbara Fellowship executive director Elliot Mathias, right, speaks with students who attended an Aug. 22 program in South River on strategies for dealing with anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Photos by Debra Rubin
Hasbara Fellowship executive director Elliot Mathias, right, speaks with students who attended an Aug. 22 program in South River on strategies for dealing with anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Photos by Debra Rubin

Helping students defend Israel on campus was the subject of an Aug. 22 workshop in South River.

Some 55 high school juniors and seniors, college students, parents, and grandparents attended “Israel Prep 101,” cosponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, JerusalemOnline University, and Hasbara Fellowships.

Held at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, the program featured two local residents who have defended Israel at Rutgers and Columbia universities.

“The response is always education,” said a third presenter, Elliot Mathias, founder and director of Hasbara Fellowships. “I can make up anything I want. Your message is not to respond to these [anti-Israel] comments but to get the message across that Israel is a good place. Israel did not steal the land from the Arabs. Israel wants peace — but it has no partners.”

Arming students with knowledge provides them with the confidence to feel less intimidated by untruths.

“You cannot lose the battle” if the message that Israel wants peace comes across, said Matthias, whose project is affiliated with Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach group.

Danielle Reich of East Brunswick, a Columbia University sophomore and New York-area director for Hasbara Fellowships, spoke of an active pro-Palestinian movement on her Manhattan campus. Its activities have included “die-ins” in which students depicting Palestinians allegedly murdered by Israeli soldiers drop to the ground.

While she described the situation as “scary,” Reich said the university also has a strong pro-Israel presence.

Reich, who is assigned to work with students at Columbia, New York, Princeton, and Rutgers universities in the coming year, said she does not object to classes or forums that highlight Palestinian culture or discuss Israeli policies.

However, at Columbia, it has often been impossible to engage pro-Palestinian students in constructive discussion, she said.

Instead, the pro-Israeli students’ approach has been to focus on Israel’s democracy and desire for peace and to form alliances with other campus groups, including Black Student Organization. That alliance has grown so strong that Reich and other Jewish students have been asked to sit on the student board of the new NAACP chapter at Columbia.

“Just remain positive,” she said, “and keep your head high and know there is a network of students and community organizations to help you when you need it.”

Liran Kapoano of Somerset, a recent graduate of Rutgers, is now campus coordinator for colleges “east of the Mississippi” for JerusalemOnline. Among other initiatives, the program pays students to take on-line courses.

Kapoano founded Scarlet, Blue and White: The Rutgers Pro-Israel Alliance on campus, formed in the wake of a series of pro-Palestinian events held at the University in New Brunswick.

“Don’t be afraid to stand up,” said Kapoano. “Be prepared and never be afraid because as long as you have the facts you will be telling the truth.”

He offered another piece of advice, inspired by Rutgers Hillel’s response to the pro-Palestinian movement’s Israel Apartheid Week.

“Always have food,” said Kapoano. “We had cake at our table and they had nothing. Everyone came to us and no one went to them. It was a stroke of genius.”

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