Separating truth from fiction can be tough. For American Jewish college students trying to field questions about Israel and Palestine, it can also be difficult and unsettling. Four years ago, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Hillel hired its first Israel Campus Fellow. Working part-time, the fellow’s job was to help address anti- Israel sentiment and activism on college campuses.
Shay Yoos, who grew up on Kibbutz Reim near the Gaza Border, is Milwaukee’s first fulltime Israel Campus Fellow, beginning this academic year. “I’m here to bring Israel to the students and to help them have more knowledge about Israel,” she said, “[whether] they need to deal with the BDS [boycott-divestment- sanctions movement] problem or just when [non-Jewish] students ask them questions.” She will be working under the supervision of the Israel Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, with support from the Jewish Agency for Israel and cooperation with Hillel Milwaukee.
According to a survey by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, 54 percent of Jewish college students experienced anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 20132014 school year. Students cited harassment, violence and “hostile environment.” Many of the incidents took place on campuses where the BDS movement is active. BDS formed in 2005 ostensibly to oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, though some observers say it really targets Israel’s existence.
It promotes, among other things, barring Israeli academics from international conferences and resolutions asking universities to divest holdings in companies that do business with Israel. Wisconsin has seen its share of BDS activity. In 2009, a BDS conference was held at UWM. In 2015, Students for Justice in Palestine at Marquette University created a resolution to divest and started a Facebook campaign.
Student activists at both schools regularly staff information tables on the conflict using BDS material. In addition to staffing information tables at UWM and Marquette, Yoos will be organizing programs about Israel. Since arriving in August, she’s been talking to students about what they know and what they want to learn.
“We’re trying to make it fun and interesting,” she said, “and almost every student I meet tells me, ‘I want to know more about Israel,’ and that it’s such a big part of their Jewish identity.”
Yoos will be planning some programs on her own. Others will be jointly planned with Grace Fantle, Milwaukee Hillel’s new director of Jewish life and learning.
Yoos is currently soliciting favorite pictures of Israel from students who’ve been there or know someone who has, and will be mounting an exhibition at the end of the month. She’s planning programs on Israeli food, traditions and artists; and to show movies. She’ll also be providing information on Israel abroad programs, including Birthright. Yoos’ own story might be helpful in reaching students, she said. In 2005, she said, when an Israel Defense Force unit mistakenly destroyed the home of family friends who worked on the kibbutz, her parents and other members took up a collection so the family could rebuild.
In 2012, catastrophe struck her own family when their house was bombed by the Muslim fundamentalist terrorist and anti-Israel organization Hamas. “My mom was in the house,” Yoos said. “Thank God, physically she was okay. But we are a very supportive family and we supported her, and she’s a strong person. Our whole house got destroyed, and we (re)built it with help from the Jewish Agency.”
One reason she applied to become an Israel Campus Fellow was because the program provided her the opportunity to share these experiences. “People around the world don’t know the real story in Israel, they only know what they see in the [news] media, and sometimes it’s not the whole truth,” she said. “I really felt I wanted to go and help students who need to deal with this issue.”
The position also matched with her major. Yoos is finishing a bachelor’s degree in business and political science/international relations at the Open University in Tel Aviv. She’s taking online classes this semester. Hillel Milwaukee’s new interim director, Marc Cohen, said he was excited about the coming year. “Shay and the Israel Campus Fellow program, supported by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is committed to providing Israel education, programming and resources to the students we serve,” he said. “We welcome and encourage all perspectives on Israel. Most important is that we provide a safe, respectful opportunity for dialogue and discourse.” l Amy Waldman is a Milwaukee based freelance writer and winner of a Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.