Our world is in the hands of powerful teens everywhere. In light of recent events, active citizens know it, political leaders know it, students at University of Wisconsin – Madison know it, and now, more than ever, so do the teens in BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
In April of 2017, the University of Wisconsin student government passed a resolution which targeted Israel, calling for the school’s divestment from companies supporting Israel’s West Bank presence. The resolution, which was drafted without community input, led to outrage from Jewish activists. They took to their feet and raised their voices, enabling the motion to be tabled. Even though the resolution was reintroduced on a day where few Jews could attend the meeting (it was Passover), they were able to stand up and speak out, eventually resulting in a dissolution of this anti-Semitic motion.
Inspired by this story of change, on April 8, BBYO members ages 16-18 ventured to Madison to engage in “SpeakUp, SpeakOut,” a program at UW-Madison Hillel, designed to teach about Israel’s history, political climate and student activism on campus.
As part of the program, college senior Ariela Rivkin led a presentation on Israel advocacy on campus. In our state’s capital, organizations such as Badgers for Israel, Student Alliance for Israel, Hillel, Chabad and more all work together to expose students to the current situation in Israel. For example, the previous two weeks had been chock-full of Israeli experiences around State Street to celebrate its 70th birthday in new ways, such as hosting an Israeli Film Fest, hearing from the first black “Miss Israel,” and spray-painting with “Artists for Israel.”
Israel advocacy often involves combating anti-Semitic propositions; however, cultural events, such as a giant blue and white party in the country’s honor, have an important role as well. UW junior and Past President of Wisconsin Region BBYO Hilary Miller shared her first piece of advice of the afternoon by saying that the most important thing in attempting to promote Israeli-focused education and involvement is to make events fun and focus on the positives. People want to come to happy, engaging, uplifting events, not targeted, hostile programs such as BDS’s “Know thy Enemy.” In fact, Madison sophomore, SAFI president and proud BBYO alumna Serena Steinfeld advises and urges us to “not look at anyone as your enemy, but rather a discussion partner.” As she implored us to hold these conversations with peers, professors and community members, she reminded us that whenever we talk about Israel, it should be in a discussion-prone setting. Meaning, it is ineffective to merely explain the benefits of being pro-Israel, hoping others agree. Instead, discussions must be conducted in a manner in which both participants are sharing their views and asking questions. Then, as a pro-Israel advocate, it is your responsibility to acknowledge their views, and see if you can influence their ideologies. While this may seem like an activity that only happens on college campuses, Hilary Miller said we can begin activism by doing two things: getting educated and getting involved. Reciting a quote by her professor Tony Michael, she said, when you come across something you care about, “you can either go one of two ways — fight for it, or drop it.” In order to fight for it, you first must be knowledgeable, and she advised, “read the news. Podcasts too guys, podcasts are awesome.” The second part is that one must follow that up by making a change, standing up, attending an event: whatever it takes in your situation to get involved. One must stand up, and speak out.
BBYO, the leading pluralistic Jewish youth movement, is thrilled to be at the forefront of social activism, and we are ready to make a stronger Jewish future. Steinfeld agrees, acknowledging, “the passion these students exuded was contagious and I think all of us walked out of the program feeling refreshed and excited for the future, both for them and for the entire pro-Israel community.” Thank you to Hillel for hosting us, we are grateful for your time and all-around efforts.
Mia Buchband is a student at University School of Milwaukee, completing her sophomore year in high school.