Leaders seek dialogue for students, not divestment

 While there are plenty of pro-Israel Jewish students on college campuses, there are also those who feel conflicted regarding the policies of the Jewish state.

It’s a dynamic that pro-Israel Jewish leadership is thinking about.

“I think the vast majority of Jewish students aren’t terribly engaged on the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “There’s a number that are committed to advocate for Israel. And there are some that question the policies of the state of Israel, just like many members of the Jewish community question Israel’s policies.”

Kahn feels American Jewry should create space where one can be supportive of Israel but question its policies. Kahn, who has met with Palestinians in the West Bank, asks rhetorically, “Do we have space in our hearts … to see the actual human beings on both sides?”

Kahn feels there are a shortage of places to have nuanced conversations that acknowledge the humanity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hillel Milwaukee, an affiliate of Hillel International, tries to offer a place for non-judgmental discussion at its facility, at 3053 N. Stowell Ave. It’s Hillel International policy that its campus groups do not partner with organizations that call for the destruction or boycott of Israel. Hillel International’s policy is that it is supportive of Israel and it encourages inquiry as students explore their relationship with Israel.

Marc Cohen, interim director of Hillel Milwaukee, tells a story of one student who came into his office in the first week of school and said he needed to know where Cohen stood on Israel.  Cohen wound up reassuring the student that he had a safe space to express his perspective on Israel.

“This is a safe space for everyone,” Cohen said in an interview. “Hillel Milwaukee is a safe environment which encourages dialogue from all perspectives regarding Israel.”

The drive towards open dialogue is not limited to college campuses. In November, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation hosted a one-day conference for area rabbis and other Jewish leaders on how to hold civil discussions about Israel.

Milwaukee Jewish Federation CEO & President Hannah Rosenthal notes that she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that she wants to see “Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in security and peace.” There are various Jewish organizations that support a two-state solution, including J Street, AJC and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Jewish leaders hope that their approach to open dialogue and dreams of peace will prevent students from even considering a group like Jewish Voice for Peace, which calls for divestment from Israel and was recently credited with distributing thousands of fake anti-Israel copies of the New York Times in New York.

Cameron Fontaine, 26, an art history graduate student from Sheboygan, has been attracted to Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. With a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, Fontaine says he grew up in a pro-Israel, kosher household. He went on a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. Kara Hendrickson, 24, of Waukesha, also a graduate student, has also been attracted to the group. She said she came to her political views after years of thinking. “I know for me it was like an internal struggle,” she said, asking rhetorically, “If I’m against Israel, how can I be Jewish?”

Both students, and another who is not supportive of Israel, all indicated they identified as Jewish. But all indicated they haven’t spent substantial time with mainstream Jewish organizations, on campus or otherwise, as young adults.

Kahn feels American Jewry should create space to be supportive of Israel but question its policies. It may be too late to dissuade these students from their anti-Israel path, but it may not be too late for others.