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Students, Groups Weigh the Efficacy of Activism

March 10, 2011 By:
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Pro-Israel students affiliated with Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania outside a lecture by Israel critic Norman Finkelstein. They urged fellow students to reject Finkelstein's message, saying it wasn't conducive to peace. The students posted a clip on YouTube.

The e-mails started flying: Temple Students for Justice in Palestine was sponsoring a March 3 program featuring Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist and fierce critic of Israel. The David Horowitz Philadelphia Freedom Center, a right-leaning group, was encouraging non-students to protest the event.

In the end, only a handful of demonstrators showed up to a sparsely attended program, according to several sources. Most of the major Jewish organizations in town decided not to get involved, citing the opinion of Temple University students that it was a minor event and that demonstrations would only give it added publicity.

"You don't want to respond every time," said Adam Kessler, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "Confrontation is not always the best way to go. You have to take each situation as it comes."

For years, the college campus has served as the setting for ideological battles over Israel, with the organized Jewish community monitoring the situation closely but not always in agreement among themselves or with students about how best to react.

The debate has intensified in recent years, with the focused effort on some campuses around the country to delegitimize Israel, particularly with the boycotts, sanctions and divestment movement and the rise of Israel Apartheid Week. For the seventh year in a row, sessions on alleged Israeli human-rights abuses and mock West Bank "checkpoints" are expected to appear on campuses in Berkeley, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and a host of other cities.

But the designated "week" -- it actually is slated this year from March 7-20 -- has typically been a quiet affair in Philadelphia in part because it usually coincides with spring breaks for practically all of the campuses affiliated with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

According to Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, director of intercampus and Israel initiatives at Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, there aren't events locally advertised under the Apartheid Week banner, though Students for Justice in Palestine has reserved the area near Temple's Bell Tower in the center of the campus for a week in April.

(She said it's not clear what they plan to do, but it's safe to assume there will be an anti-Israel message.)

"I'm thrilled that it's not a bigger story here in Philadelphia," said de Koninck.

Attracts a Large Audience

That doesn't mean anti-Israel programs aren't around. Norman Finkelstein, a harsh critic of the Jewish state and a child of Holocaust survivors, spoke at Penn last month and is slated to appear at Temple on April 6.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said that Finkelstein, who typically attracts a large audience and a good deal of media attention, is a case that does warrant action by students. At Penn, rather than confront Finkelstein directly, Jewish students set up a table and handed out flyers to people leaving the lecture; they also displayed pride in Israel by waving Israeli flags.

A similar response is planned at Temple, according to Alpert.

"If we simply responded every time an anti-Israel speaker is brought to campus, we wind up first dissipating student energy and diluting the pro-Israel message," he said. "It's far less effective to get across our message when the other side controls the platform."

Instead, he advocates pro-Israel students putting on their own events, such as a talk at Drexel University last week by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, as well as planned Israel Weeks coming up at several area campuses.

De Koninck said that in her view, outside groups should consult with Hillel and the JCRC before getting involved in a campus event. For example, regarding the speaker last week, Temple students and staff knew that it was essentially a group meeting for Students for Justice in Palestine and not something aimed at the wider community.

"If we need the community to show up on campus, we are able to ask for it," said De Koninck.

But that doesn't sit so well with leaders of the Freedom Center and other groups that believe that organizations like the JCRC and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia respond too rarely.

Craig Snider, director of the Freedom Center, said that "if Hillel needs to be a cultural organization and it wants to steer clear of politics, I respect that."

But anti-Israel sentiment is ripe on most college campuses and many academic departments, said Snider.

Somebody needs to actively present the other side, said Snider, who sits on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Jewish Exponent. And, he argued, it's not fair to expect undergraduates to always know when and how to respond.

Joshua Cooper, a 19-year-old freshman at Penn, said that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to Israel activism. When members of the Penn Israel Coalition participated in a debate with another student group, Penn for Palestine, students sought guidance from staff at the Israeli Consulate, he said.

Most of the time, students can handle situations on their own, said Cooper, the son of a Conservative rabbi, adding that anti-Israel activism "hasn't been such a big issue at Penn."

Emily Green, a 19-year-old Hebrew major at Temple involved in pro-Israel activism, said in an e-mail that it's important that "the wider community be aware of what we as students do and don't deal with on campus."

She added that she wants all students to know that "while Israel is amazing, it is still a normal country just like ours. They make mistakes just like we do, but they do what they can to fix the mistakes in the best way possible."

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