On a hot mid-August day in Boston, when many of the city’s tens of thousands of college students had yet to arrive in their parents’ SUVs and U-Haul trucks, more than 60 pro-Israel student leaders from across North America huddled together in a hotel.
While most people their age might be holding down gritty summer jobs or vacationing on a beach, these students were passionately discussing topics ranging from media bias on Israel, to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to the persecution of Middle East Christians as part of the Aug. 16-19 Student Leadership and Advocacy Training Conference of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
CAMERA, a media watchdog organization that has no problems taking on giants like the New York Times or the Associated Press when it sees inaccuracies or bias, imparts the same type of fearless attitude when it comes to anti-Israel activity on college campuses.
“These kids are facing profound hostility on campus. Pro-Israel students are being bullied. That’s why our conference is of such high importance,” said Gilad Skolnick, CAMERA’s director of student programing.
Besides teaching debate tactics and how to build a successful pro-Israel group, one of the major goals of the conference is to foster a sense of solidarity among student leaders.
“My biggest takeaway is that there are so many people who share the same views as me,” Daphne Osakwe, a rising senior at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, told JNS.org. “That has really motivated me to work harder because I have learned so much from the experiences of these other students that I could use to help support the Zionist movement on my campus.”
Osakwe, like many other students at the CAMERA conference, described an extremely hostile campus environment when it comes to the issue of Israel.
“We have a very small Jewish community at our school and a very large Arab Muslim community who pushed through BDS campaigns,” said Osakwe, who comes from a multinational family with members from Africa, South America, and Israel.
“As a black woman who is also Jewish, I want to be able to stand up for myself and others who are like me,” she added.
In 2014, the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance became the first student union in Canada to approve a pro-BDS resolution through an undergraduate referendum. The vote came after an anti-Israel attack against the school’s vice president of academic affairs, Jake DeJong, whose office was broken into and vandalized, with his Support Our Troops flag defaced with the Star of David and the word “Zionist.”
Jason Storch, a rising junior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said that school’s branch of the anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is known as one of the more “militant” SJP chapters. In 2014, Vassar SJP published a Nazi propaganda poster on its Tumblr social media account.
“What drew me to CAMERA was an urgent need for a voice. I just want to have conversations with people on campus that don’t escalate into shouting matches or walkouts,” Storch told JNS.org.
“It’s just not a conversation about Israel. It’s a conversation about respecting academic integrity, academic freedom, and freedom of speech,” he said.
Storch said nearly everyone on his campus is in agreement that Israel in the wrong, and that there has “been a lot of terrible things said about Jews and Israel” from both students and faculty.
In addition to the Nazi cartoon used by SJP, dozens of Vassar faculty members published an open letter in Miscellany News, the school newspaper, criticizing the decision by Vassar President Catherine Bond Hill to condemn the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel in 2013.
“We cannot afford to be passive about the considerable violence and brutality that the Israeli state has inflicted and continues to inflict upon the Palestinian people and other minoritized populations, particularly as the United States financially, militarily, and diplomatically supports the Israeli state, and thereby contributes to the ongoing occupation,” the 39 faculty members wrote.
“It got to the point where I needed outside help,” Storch said. “Having more information is in my opinion the biggest part of the battle, and CAMERA provided that.”
With more than 60 colleagues in attendance at the CAMERA conference, many pro-Israel student leaders felt empowered by seeing those who shared their passion for the Jewish state and have faced numerous challenges on campus.
“The networking is the best part,” Ari Benjamin, a rising sophomore at George Mason University in Virginia, told JNS.org. “The more minds looking at the problem and getting different opinions and angles helps to eventually conquer the whole problem.”
Benjamin, who served in a special forces unit in the Israel Defense Forces before returning to the U.S. to attend college, said hearing about other students’ experiences gave him a lot of confidence in knowing that he is not alone in standing up for Israel on campus. He also praised CAMERA for supporting students through the process.
“[CAMERA] is with you 100 percent,” Benjamin said. “It is unbelievable how many tools and options they offer, on everything from speakers to funding for your group. They have experts on every field when it comes to Israel.”
“You could see on the students’ faces that they felt renewed and empowered,” said Aviva Slomich, international campus director of CAMERA. “What we try to do is give the students a network of support and strategies to make a persuasive case for Israel.”
Osakwe, the University of Windsor student, lauded many of the marketing and social media tools she learned at the conference that will help her promote her pro-Israel group. Those tools will also come in handy after graduation, as she hopes to one day open her own public relations firm.
“We learned how to better use Facebook to advertise events and reach my target audience… and also about buzzwords and catchphrases to use when writing or tweeting,” she said. “These were all super helpful.”
The CAMERA conference culminated in a two hour-long mock hearing on an Israel divestment resolution, in which the students were asked to put together all the knowledge and tools they learned during the four-day conference into speeches opposing a divestment measure.
In recent years, Israel divestment votes have become more numerous at schools across North America, with many pro-Israel students forced to plead their case in front of student government officials who often come in with their own biases about Israel.
The students were divided into four groups and were tasked with coming up with their own speeches against the proposed Israel divestment resolution. Each group then selected two members to stand up in front of a mock student government panel comprised of CAMERA staffers who critiqued their speeches.
In the speeches, many of the students told personal stories about their experiences in Israel, while also condemning the divestment resolution for singling out the Jewish state for criticism despite egregious human rights violations by other countries around the world.
George Mason’s Benjamin said that besides the tools that could be gleaned from the conference, “it is the people, it is the human power in bringing together all these student leaders” that made the gathering special.