The Blog

Being Part Of A Bigger Cause

I came to Israel on a 9 month program, not knowing what to expect. It changed me. I felt a sense of belonging, and pride to a place that matched my core values There were holidays like Yom Hazikoron, Yom Hatzmaot, Yom Ha’shoah, that made me feel like a piece of a history, a people, and a bloodline. A nation of immigrants, not even a century old, gave me the inspiration to want to be part of a bigger cause, and stay.

My Heart Is In The East

[su_intro]Coming back to Israel was something I have wanted to do since my last trip.[/su_intro]

I’m so glad I had the chance to come back because Israel is my second home. The moment you walk off the plane you feel connected to it and every second I’m there I feel more and more connected to the land and the Jewish people. There is not a moment when I don’t think to myself how lucky I am to be there. This trip I just went on was more about Israel advocacy then site seeing, which make me more aware than ever how important it is to stand with Israel. Just going to the Kotel and seeing everyone pray and dance together is so inspiring. This time, I got a bracelet made for myself that said “My heart is in the East while I’m in the West” as a way of reminding myself each day how important Israel is to me. Now that I’m home, I’m brainstorming how I’m going to go back as soon as possible because I miss it so much already, and it hasn’t even been a week since I’ve returned home.

On the frontline: Jewish activism at UC Irvine

[su_intro]It is just another year at UC Irvine – the Muslim Student Union (MSU) recently finished their “Hate week” and the Hillel is preparing to launch IFest, the university’s week-long celebration of Israel[/su_intro]

UC Irvine has been in the headlines many times over the past few years related to anti-Israel activities such as the infamous walkout on Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, but not often have the headlines been about issues that demonstrate a positive attitude toward Israel or the Jewish student body. It is a welcome change to see a more balanced environment developing as a result of the anti-Israel hate events that have been held on campus.

“The situation on campus is both negative and positive” said Jonah Balakhaneh, President of the group Students for Peace in the Middle East. He continued, “It has had a magical effect on many Jewish students who have now gotten very active on campus and focused their efforts on learning as much as possible about Israel.” This is a quite different story from impressions of UC Irvine as a hotbed of anti-Semitism where Jewish students are made to feel uncomfortable year-round. In fact, based on what I have been hearing, things are changing rapidly for the enthusiastic Jewish community.

When Itzik Yarkoni, the new Israel Fellow, arrived at UC Irvine in 2010, he came prepared for a high level of anti-Israel activism and focused his attention on how best to effectively combat it and advocate for Israel. Yarkoni, who was born in Bat Yam, spent several years living in Sderot and helped to run the Sderot Media Center before coming to the UC Irvine campus. In considering the situation, Yarkoni said, “I took my experiences in Sderot and brought them here.” Yarkoni noted that as a student at Sapir College in Sderot, he faced rocket fire and bomb shelters on a daily basis. “I realized that there are two ways to deal with a situation – to either walk away or to stay and fix it.”

The second choice is the one that Yarkoni chose as he became very active in the Sderot Media Center. “Instead of running away from the rockets, we chose to stay so we could document the attacks and present the situation that we are facing to the general public with social media.” This formula, which has been successfully used in Sderot for several years, has now been implemented at UC Irvine, where students are actively working together on a social media team. Through monitoring what is happening around the campus and providing accounts of events, straight from the students, the UC Irvine Social Media team has already paid off. Students have described seeing increased attendance at their events and also have gained a lot personally by learning more about themselves as Jews and becoming supporters of Israel.

The social media team at UC Irvine has responsibility for blogging, photography, and creating videos to document what is happening on the campus. According to Cathy Shutaya, a member of the social media team who manages the group’s blog, “It is important to show that there is a vibrant Jewish community at UCI and that it is not a terrible, anti-Semitic place, as people often describe it.” Shutaya continued, “Beside for one time of the year, during which ‘hate week’ takes place, I cannot feel the tension on campus and that is important to note.” This was a feeling echoed by all students that I spoke with who are active in Jewish life and Israel advocacy.

Similar statements were made by Ari Friedman, a freshman in charge of photography for the social media team. Friedman said, “UC Irvine is a great place for Jewish students interested in discovering themselves and their Jewish identity.” He went on to say, “By being faced with situations throughout the year, it gives students a chance to stand up and represent themselves, as well as a cause that is greater than them.” Along with the day-to-day encounters on campus, students have also been privileged to learn about Israel from Yarkoni and to attend different events and conferences that educate on different aspects of Israel.

Unfortunately, not everything on the UC Irvine campus is totally positive. The MSU just finished up their “Palestinian Awareness Week,” entitled “Palestine: an Invisible Nation.” “Hate weeks” in the past, have provided an opportunity for the MSU to hang inflammatory items around campus, such as bloody Israeli flags, and to bring in speakers, such as Amir Abdel Malik Ali, who during last year’s “hate week” publicly stated his support for terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and called Jews “the New Nazis”. Jewish students felt a bit of relief this year since MSU did not re-invite Ali for an annual return or hang bloodied flags around campus, but still, the week was problematic for several reasons.

This year, “they toned it down a little bit” exclaimed Jonah Balakhaneh. He continued, “Still, they don’t get credit from me because it was supposed to be ‘Palestinian Awareness Week’ and all we found was Israel bashing.” The week of activities included speeches from extreme anti-Israel activists, such as Yisroel Dovid Weiss, head rabbi of the radical Neturei Karta group, UC Berkeley’s infamous anti-Israel professor Hatem Bazian, and fanatic political activist Alison Weir, who over time has promoted slanderous theories, such as that Israel is involved in “organ harvesting.”

“This year they used more Israeli and Jewish speakers than in the past,” said Yarkoni, “but what they’re not telling the public is that these Jewish and Israeli speakers represent an incredibly small minority.” Additionally, they did not tell students that speakers, such as Weiss embraced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or that Bazian once provoked a crowd at UC Berkeley saying, “How come we don’t have an intifada in this country?” In addition, materials found on campus did not recognize Israel’s legal existence as a state. On the “wall” set up on campus meant to depict Israel’s security barrier, a map was posted for the public to view that did not recognize Israel. Instead, Israel’s creation in 1948 was referred to as an “occupation,” which shows exactly where the MSU stands on the conflict.

With all of the efforts that have been made to demonize Israel, it is encouraging to see the Jewish students at UC Irvine standing up for Israel and being proud of their heritage. With the ongoing social media initiative and other activities taking place, it looks hopeful that the Jewish groups on campus will continue to flourish. As many of the students said, UC Irvine can be a wonderful place for Jewish students to study, as well as learn more about themselves and what it means to be a Jew. It certainly appears that the students will no longer tolerate the hate speech on campus or branding of their university as “anti-Semitic” – instead they hope to grow their movement to ensure a positive experience for all students.

Being Free

A bent-over elderly man, almost transported to this spot and time from perhaps the 1930s limps by me. “?פוטו ממקום” (“tourist photos”) he faintly pipes, wearily lifting the obsolete Polaroid. If only it weren’t for the inappropriate over-commercialized setting and the iPhone, he would be in big business here… The polaroids will fade and the film will die, but there is something so unforgettable about this man’s characteristic limp, his urgency in capturing ephemeral moments using the most classic, timeless methods. He is ready and willing to work, to reinject the personal into human contact. And thus it’s so simple, like so many things about the character of this country (even though most of the world fails to notice, and only focuses on the complicated).

There is a faith in what worked in the past, dedication to sacred memory, and unwavering responsibility of commemoration. Jews visit a Temple-less Temple Mount because the image in the collective conscience cannot be obliterated, a nation crowds and commemorates for an entire day the death of its fallen heroes because of the sheer magnificence of the revived Jewish fighter. Throngs burst through the Jerusalem gates in May, because a memory of a besieged Jerusalem is both in the distance and yet in impossible proximity and the miracle of Jewish sovereignty is now so palpable. Just 70 years before, they had been proceeding in masses toward a different faith, and now the march is voluntary, empowered, marked by the stride of a nation reclaimed through strength and persistence. Songs of yearning, songs thousands of years old ring in the corridors of the Old City in tune to the clinks of the chisel that uncovers yet more of my Jewish history, and beckons with outstretched arms, “YOU—you belong here, and don’t forget it!” And these rocks are a transcendent sight, tear-jerking. It is a curious phenomenon, the survival of stones beneath the plunders of history. So too the sustenance of a nation fated to be eradicated and forgotten. But no, old people saunter in the Old City streets and children giggle and play in the squares, because they — and I — have returned to that most satisfying state of being—free—in one’s homeland. Yes, mister, I’ll take that photo.

Our Hearts And Minds

I woke up at 2:30AM, slipped on my sneakers, and wandered sleepily down to the bus. I don’t remember much of the bus ride, just a lot of turning and swerving and the sounds of an argument between the bus driver and our madricha, Emunah. We arrived at the bottom of the mountain Sartaba on the first of the month of Sivan at about 4 in the morning and began searching for the trail marker in the dark. After about an hour it looked like we were reaching the top of the mountain. Hearing our excited muttering Emunah turned and gave us a sympathetic look, in a few minutes we saw why. We had not reached the top, we had reached the point from which the top was first visible. Here the hike became impossibly more uphill and rocky. Every ten minutes or so we would take a moment to catch our breath and gaze at the sun rising over the Jordan valley, it was as if we were hiking towards it.

A sweaty, achy, breathless hour and a half later Emunah shouted over her shoulder at us to say birchot hatorah as we hiked so we could learn mishnayot the second we got to the top. We arrived at the top about a half an hour later just as the sky erupted into pinks and yellows. As promised, we began to learn the mishnayot about the first of the month and how the mountain we had just hiked was the second (or third according to some opinions) in a chain of mountains that were illuminated by enormous bonfires to let the country know that the first of the month had arrived. We then proceeded to make a bonfire and roast marshmallows.

As we ate breakfast I thought about something Rabbi Norman Lamm had said about the first of the month. He talked about the significance of the people’s responsibility to declare the month themselves by identifying the new moon and the nature of the commandment of Rosh Chodesh. G-d told Moshe, “Hachodesh hazel lachem Rosh chodeshim,” This month for you the first of all months. G-d commanded the month for us, to be identified by us. Hence Rabbi Lamm argues, to be filled with our own creativity. As we declare each month, we are to proceed to fill its days with our hearts and minds. The combination of reliving the actions of our ancestors by hiking Sartaba on Rosh chodesh, and the fresh opportunity Rosh Chodesh implies was more breathtaking than the orange sun.

Living My Ancestors Dreams

[su_intro]Every Jew’s heart swells with pride when he gets up in the morning, looks out his window, and sees a blue and white flag flying from every window in his neighborhood.[/su_intro]

Stars of David surrounded the landscape of my 3rd floor apartment in Jerusalem, and my 18 year old self could not be prouder of the country my grandparents helped settle. But the moment I knew I was home was the first Friday morning in Jerusalem when the city has officially shut down from the week and began the transition to Shabbat. Shopkeepers selling off their last burekas, the smell of Challah in the air, and families cleaning their house for guests remind everyone in the country the day of rest is coming. As the crowd of people walking to and from Shul dies down, the streets become completely empty, barren, and exactly as they should be. I will always remember walking down the Light Rail in the center of Jerusalem on a midnight visit to the Kotel, knowing I am living my ancestors dreams, and keeping my heritage and tradition to the best of my ability, something I can only do in my homeland.

A Passion for Israel

Growing up in a Reformed, Jewish household, religion never held an important role in my life. I went to ‘Hebrew School’ twice a week growing up, learning the basics of Jewish history, beliefs, culture, and language until I had my Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen. This education consisted very little of information about modern Israel, and consequently my knowledge of the Jewish Homeland was scarce at best. My mother always tells me how incredible and beautiful Israel is and that she hopes for an opportunity to go back for a visit. She particularly favors the feeling that overcame her while she was in Israel, which she described as feeling at peace with the homeland of our religion. I lacked the initiative to learn about Israel on my own due to my disinterest in both religion and politics growing up. What little information I knew came from news clips I saw here and there, often describing continuous fighting and unrest in Israel. I pictured Israel as a barren desert, filled only with Jews, constantly subjected to terrorism and other aggression. I had no idea how far that vision was from reality.

In the spring of 2012, I applied and was accepted to go to Israel for ten days in May with an organization called Taglit Birthright. My first exposure to the land was absolutely incredible. I loved everything about it: the people, weather, architecture, food, and more. I never expected the extravagance of cities like Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Haifa. I saw a great and prospering nation, so I couldn’t understand why my perceptions were so dramatically mistaken. In order to learn more, I began to conduct research, follow Israeli news outlets, and returned to Israel on a sixteen-day trip designed to educate on both sides of the conflict as well as immerse you in the experience. I will be returning to Israel this summer as part of the Global Student Experience program with Ernst & Young as an audit intern in Tel Aviv. I hope to move there on a more permanent basis after finishing school. Due to my deep passion for Israel, it is extremely difficult for me to understand why so many people can feel such intense hate for my beloved, future home and so I work every day to correct these misperceptions and show the world was Israel really is.

Feeling Rejuvenated

I have always known I was Jewish, and culturally that has always been very important to me. My Grandmother and Grandfather are both Holocaust survivors coming out of Auschwitz. Keeping the family heritage is something I always knew I wanted. However growing up and going to Synagogue was very difficult for me. I was not like the rest of kids because I have an Irish Catholic last name, my father converted but to my Temple that didn’t matter, I was an outcast. It’s a terrible thing, Jews against Jews, but that’s how it was. So as soon as my Bat Mitzvah was over I left my Synagogue never to return. I faced many hardships being Jewish growing up and I was very scared to tell people that I was a Jew knowing there was so much prejudice so I didn’t tell many people. It wasn’t until i got to college that I felt truly comfortable opening up about being Jewish. I felt very secure in the small Jewish community on campus, but I was still confused as to what my Jewish identity was, until I went on Birthright, it truly changed my life.

Just being in the land of Zion and breathing in Israels air I felt rejuvenated. I had many profound moments but there was one that embodies my whole experience. We were in the dessert, I had never seen so many stars, and one of our guides Itzik Yarkoni (who will forever be a dear friend) told us to look out at the dessert and see where our ancestors walked, see how far we have all come. I walked a little ways by myself and found a slightly raised bit of land. I stood on it and looked up at the sky and began to cry. I suddenly felt whole again, I knew in my heart that I was brought to this world to pass on the lineage of my family to my kids, and teach them where we came from. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I loved every moment of Israel the people I met, the places we went, the food we ate. Israel is like no other place in the world, it’s almost like we can feel God in every breath we take. Someday I will go back, hopefully with my family (when I’m married with kids) and I hope they will cherish the memories as I will. Thank you for an incredible experience! Everyone should go to Israel!!

Silence your gun before it backfires: Lessons from the Brooklyn College BDS debacle

On Feb. 6, New York’s Brooklyn College found itself entangled in a fiery free speech fiasco that not only brought to arms both sides of the fervent debate on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but a public and somewhat personal statement by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement—which advocates an academic and commercial boycott on Israel as a means to brand it a criminal nation—was granted approval and funds by Brooklyn College’s political science department to host a panel delegitimizing the Jewish state, thinly veiled as a discussion of their movement’s mission.

Lectures and panels denouncing Israel as an apartheid state have frequently popped up on university speaker schedules across the country for years, so why did this particular event heat up the campus’s political climate and capture the public’s attention in such an unprecedented way?

The meritless BDS movement, which has been debunked as indefensible under international law, is most definitely not reaching a mainstream audience. Rather, a public relations win for BDS is a direct result of generally flawed tactics employed by the other side. In their continued attempt to combat anti-Israel hate speech, the pro-Israel community shouts when it should strategize.

Highlighting the whole affair was Bloomberg, who said he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement. Even more significantly, the mayor pointed out the ironic publicity BDS enjoyed was the very result of prominent Zionists speaking out.

Highlighting the whole affair was Bloomberg, who said he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement.

“What the protesters have done is given lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want to people to talk about,” Bloomberg said. “They just don’t think before they open their mouths.”

Had Israel supporters taken a more subtle approach, the initially low-profile BDS discussion may have attracted fewer anti-Israel sympathizers.

The first pro-Israel response came from Jewish intellectual Alan Dershowitz, who asserted Brooklyn College’s approval was very much a result of internal bias, and not derived from a love of free speech. Then came members of the New York State Assembly and City Council, including mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, who threatened to cut Brooklyn College’s funding if the event proceeded. Assemblyman Dov Hikind warned of a “second Holocaust”. Within a week of the scheduled event, the media was awash in opinions from both sides, and the modest lecture was transformed into a divisive international issue.

Then came the protestors. While philosopher Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti spoke in the student center, the chanting could still be heard. Dozens of police officers were stationed outside, checking attendees for weapons and monitoring the overflow. Though members of the press weren’t allowed inside, they questioned people on what they thought about the BDS movement. Most never heard even of it—until the vocal attempts to suppress it garnered worldwide attention, that is.

As a former Israel activist at UC Irvine, a campus that suffers from rampant anti-Semitism, I (Itzik Yarkoni) recall a case when pro-Israel leaders effectively responded to a similar event using restraint. “Israeli Apartheid Week”—the annual week demonizing Israel on campus that comes with heated protests and counter-protests—provides plenty of fodder for sympathetic media outlets. But one year, we chose to simply ignore it. No counter-protest, no megaphones, no crowds, and most importantly, no press.

Our muted response was in contrast to years past, when combative pro-Israel groups brought massive attention to UC Irvine, which served not only to increase numbers for the anti-Israel audience, but with the help of a biased media presence, warped the pro-Israel message into something altogether unintended.

After the BDS discussion at Brooklyn College, had campus Israel activists waited patiently to appeal to sympathizers leaving the event, they could have shared the truth about BDS’s origins as a hate-fest and ultimate path towards the destruction of the state of Israel. This would possibly change minds, or at least introduce them to a rational opposition.

This strategy—called “individual appeal”—can be effectively used with “soft-Zionists,” those who identify as supporters of the Jewish state, but lack proper historical context. The BDS website speaks for itself. Their mission statement, if carried out, logically leads to the disenfranchisement of the Jewish people without any clear indication of how it would create a lasting peace.

The other major battlefield in this war of words is online, being waged on social media platforms. Israel supporters need to ask: Who is really controlling the dialogue? Pro-Israel identifiers may be the Jewish state’s most vocal defenders on the Web, but when the message communicated is Israel’s role in the context of the BDS debacle, what that ultimately amounts to is even more PR for the BDS cause, and the tarnishing of Israel’s brand.

During the week of Feb. 6, there were thousands of Facebook messages and tweets concerning the Brooklyn College event and its associated controversies. That same week, plenty of positive news broke about Israel, hardly any of which was shared across social networks with the same intensity. Just a few examples: New York real estate firm Pinnacle Group sold $400 million NIS in Tel Aviv Bonds, the European Union denounced any calls for boycotts against Israel, and Birthright announced skateboarding and hip hop themed trips to Israel.

Even if they aren’t aware of it, Israel supporters are choosing how their country is being presented to the world: either proactively in the context of positive, productive and truthful news, or via defensive, emotionally triggered reactions to the activities of anti-Israel organizations.

It’s critical to understand that the success enjoyed by anti-Israel movements in demonizing the Jewish state is often a direct result of Zionist groups whose impassioned race to the soapbox can serve to pique the curiosity of latent audiences for hate groups. With the implementation of simple ground-level reforms, we can remind Israel haters that without our help, no one is listening.

Ariel Nishli is a journalist living in Los Angeles.
Itzik Yarkoni is a former Israeli fellow for UCI Irvine, and now lives in Jerusalem.