The Middle East watchdog group holds a four-day conference to train college students in how to defend Israel from its detractors.
Talk about “Candid CAMERA!”
Last week, thanks to a conference organized by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, better known by its acronym of CAMERA, 60 college students from across the country, along with representatives from England and Canada, assembled at the Hillel of Boston University for four days with a goal of setting the record straight. Those assembled were clear about their reasons for being there. To a person, they are tired of hearing Israel and the Jewish people being misrepresented in the news and on their campuses, characterized as warmongers, even murderers. And they’ve had enough of the anti-Semitic comments being hurled their way on campus on a regular basis.
In many ways, like Howard Beale, the celebrated newsman in the 1976 film, Network, they’re “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.” when it comes to inaccurate reporting of what’s really going on.
That’s what the conference was all about: shifting the focus away from extremism to deliver a different, more positive message.
For those who attended, it was an eye-opening experience.
“I definitely think after attending the conference I feel more confident about speaking up,” said 19-year-old Rutgers sophomore Deborah Shamilov, who spent two years commuting from her Voorhees, N.J. home to attend Kohelet Yeshiva High in Lower Merion. “It’s very intimidating when you have people saying things on campus and all of sudden you look bad. Every student has these questions, ‘What can I say? How can I say it? Can I say it?’
“But I feel more confident now, not only in my ability to speak up, but knowing I have a lot of resources and people who are going to help me.”
In this, its fifth year sponsoring the conference, in which all attendees’ costs — including flights, food and lodging — are covered by CAMERA, they’re finally beginning to see results. The problem is, there’s so much bias, so much ignorance, so much misinformation being spread around that it’s difficult to overcome.
“The biggest inaccuracy we see is that people believe… Israel is the aggressor. They fail to equate the Palestinian authority with Hamas, and to put [Hamas] on an equal footing with ISIS and Al Qaeda. They don’t make a distinction between a liberal democracy and a radical religious terrorist organization. It’s been worse lately as the SJP becomes more organized.”
That would be the Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-Palestinian group which has been harassing Jewish students on campus for years. Of greater concern now is the BDS Global Movement they’re fronting, whose aim is boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. CAMERA’s fear is that if SJP and the BDS movement are not exposed as anti-Semitic and simply inaccurate, their efforts could result in enough other countries supporting BDS to potentially cripple Israel’s economy unless it complies with SJP demands.
Those demands include: returning all seized lands going back to the 1967 Six-Day War; giving Palestinians full equality within Israel; and allowing all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and reclaim all of their property.
“The biggest challenge is students are afraid to speak up,” said Skolnick, who explained that this year’s conference was extended a day to include a session on how to combat BDS propaganda on campus. “They fear if they start defending Israel, it will cause more damage. Some are even afraid to wear a yarmulke or to ask questions that might be seen as being pro-Israel.
“In fact, it’s the other way around. Being silent does the most damage. A lot of what we do is create confidence in this environment for students to speak out.”
Anecdotally speaking, it seems to be working. “I thought the conference was great,” said Shamilov, a pre-med student who had to go through two extensive interviews — one while she was in the midst of a summer internship in Israel — before being accepted into the program. “The speakers they brought in were really powerful. CAMERA is all about accurate reporting, focusing on the Middle East in general. My job is to monitor what’s being said on campus, and to raise my voice when they’re saying things not factually accurate.
“For me, being informed is important. I think the biggest problem is people aren’t educated about the topic. They say such ridiculous things. A lot of students hear about Israel and the conflict, but don’t really look into it. They don’t have any connections, so that’s not their focus.”
SJP seems to be seizing upon that ignorance, trying to make its case with little but rhetoric. “The SJP students are a very loud voice,” said Shamilov, who posts a blog, The Israel Club, on Facebook, which frequently updates about what’s going on there and throughout the Middle East. “They’re saying that Israel is killing babies and that Jews are horrible. People are ignorant. They don’t know the history — that’s how everything gets twisted.”
Getting it untwisted, getting students to advocate for themselves and spread a different message is what CAMERA focused on last week. “It’s working on campus,” said Skolnick, a graduate of UMass. “We’re seeing progress during the year. It’s an uphill battle. With the mainstream media it’s more of a long-term challenge. But on the college campus, things can change.”
It will take a concerted effort to make that happen, though. “Our experience shows us there is a real problem on campus,” said CAMERA president and executive director, Andrea Levin, in a post-conference interview. “We try to give students practical techniques and strategies for handling the bigotry they’re facing, along with an exploration of the moral dimension in standing up for the Jewish state.
“These are very impressive young people who are committed, thoughtful and eager to be effective.”
Now that the conference is over and those 60 young people —representing some 50 colleges — are back on campus, the real work begins.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729.