Though the University of Pennsylvania is arguably one of the strongest pro-Israel campuses in the country, it, too, has gone through a number of challenges and will inevitably face more in the future, writes a student activist.
The Arab-Israeli conflict as manifested on college campuses is often characterized by angry rhetoric, aggressive Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and even violence. As recently as this past fall, we witnessed violence and aggression directed at a Jewish student at Temple University. This incident, unfortunately, is one of many familiar stories of vitriolic, anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic behavior on campuses across the country.
To the surprise of many, the University of Pennsylvania is not writhing with such visible conflict and its anti-Israel groups are not taking center stage with loud, vitriolic rhetoric and activity.
That said, the work of student activists with the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as PIPAC, is far from obsolete or complete. While our campus is arguably home to one of the strongest pro-Israel college communities in the country, it, too, has witnessed its fair share of challenges and will inevitably face more in the future.
Notably, the annual BDS conference was hosted at Penn just three years ago, when leading members of the anti-Israel community advocated for a boycott of Israel and its products. However, the BDS conference and each subsequent challenge has posed an opportunity for growth and unity of the pro-Israel community at Penn. After the 2012 BDS conference, PIPAC, then only a year old, dramatically increased its membership to about 60 members and transformed into a strong organization that continues to solidify and increase its presence and impact.
We work to promote a strong U.S.-Israel relationship on a daily basis through lobbying Pennsylvania’s elected officials, hosting educational events and serving as a campus resource on Israel-related issues.
Our efforts are highlighted through the release of an annual Leadership Statement, which features the signatures and personal statements of leaders of a wide array of student groups on Penn’s campus in support of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. PIPAC’s 2015 Leadership Statement, featured in this week’s Jewish Exponent (page 5) and in the Daily Pennsylvanian, includes 60 such student leaders along with the signatures of Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey (D) and Pat Toomey (R), as well as Mayor Michael Nutter.
However, the true significance of the Leadership Statement lies not in the number of signatories, but rather what these numbers represent. Each student signature originates with an initial conversation, often over coffee, about the United States and Israel. These meetings continue, often developing into a trusting relationship. PIPAC members serve as a resource to these leaders, and when a contentious issue regarding Israel comes up in the news or on campus, Penn’s student leaders turn to their friends in PIPAC first.
PIPAC’s commitment to engaging student leaders — who, in turn, are likely to become future leaders of the United States — helps minimize the conflict surrounding Israel that is so often found on college campuses. These conversations and relationships, in a lasting and significant way, contribute to building and maintaining support for a strong Israel and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
In the past few weeks, we have seen Islamic extremism reach unimaginable new levels in France, a country very similar to our own. Our role in defending our democratic ideals, both at home and abroad, begins on college campuses, where the thoughts of the next generation are being molded each day.
It is for this reason that PIPAC’s 2015 Leadership Statement and the continuous work of pro-Israel activists on Penn’s campus and campuses across the country, regardless of their political environments, are so significant. Today’s students represent the future of the United States and the safety and security of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship for many years to come.
Jacklyn Kornstein, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania from Scarsdale, N.Y., is president of PIPAC.