We live in a time when movements like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), Free Palestine and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) are rampant in colleges across America; this strong anti-Israel sentiment pervades campus culture, and Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus often struggle to advocate for Israel and make their voices heard. To help combat this issue, the World Jewish Congress and the Israeli Consulate of New York launched the Campus Pitch Initiative, encouraging student groups from top universities throughout the Northeast to design and propose innovative ideas about how to engage students and change the conversation about Israel on campus. This is the second year of the competition.
This year’s initiative culminated in an event this past week, on the evening of February 15, when five finalists from NYU, Brooklyn College, the University of Pennsylvania, the New School and Yale were invited to pitch their ideas to a prominent panel of judges, including Evelyn Summer, Chair of the World Jewish Congress, North America; Galit Peleg, the head of the public diplomacy department at the Israeli Consulate; and Larry Kimmel, the CEO of a major marketing firm. The proposals were judged on four criteria: innovation, impact, feasibility and relevance. The winner would be awarded $5,000 to fund their proposal. Students from many different colleges and backgrounds traveled to the Innovation Loft, a venue in Midtown Manhattan, to watch the competition.
The contestants had very different ideas on how to change the way Israel is viewed on campus. Adela Cojab, the vice president of Realize Israel, a pro-Israel group at NYU, wanted to appeal to minority groups in her college by showcasing Israel as one of the only safe and tolerant places for minorities in the Middle East. She proposed a public movie screening in Washington Square Park featuring movies about Israel and the LGBTQ community. Cojab described the event as “cultural, not political,” believing that it could be a fun, approachable and accessible way to reach out to other students and build relationships with different groups and communities in NYU.
The next speaker, Eiron Mizrachi, from Brooklyn College, wanted to take advantage of the ability in today’s culture to connect easily to others through pictures and digital media. “Israel today is facing a PR war, where the image is crucial to defaming or advancing them,” Mizrachi explained. He described his idea, called “The Unity through Diversity Initiative,” which would invite students from all backgrounds to work with Zion Ozeri, a famous Israeli photographer whose past work focused on capturing diversity and culture. These students would develop and showcase their portfolios in the New York area, as well as in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Israel. Mizrachi explained that Brooklyn College was one of the top 10 diverse colleges in the country, but it was also one of the top 10 for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate crimes. Through this initiative, he believed that they could “use photography to build bridges” between the Israel groups and the rest of the students.
Sam Collins, the speaker from the University of Pennsylvania, took a more pragmatic approach with his proposal. Collins wanted to maximize the reach and impact of pro-Israel speakers and events on campus, which are often expensive and difficult to plan, yet sometimes only draw a small attendance. Collins called his proposal the “3Ps”—a plan that involved packaging, producing and promoting video content. He planned to utilize social media to spread the content so the impact of the event could continue even after it ended. Collins concluded by pointing out that there is such an overwhelming amount of negative and untrue news about Israel posted online, declaring, “It’s time we started bringing positive Israeli content to the internet.”
The fourth speaker, Alexi Rosenfeld, from the New School, focused on giving students a taste of the Israel experience. “Every young adult should have a first-hand experience and connection with Israel,” he said. “If you can’t go to Israel, we’ll bring Israel to you!” Rosenfeld proposed a program called 7 Days, 7 Hours; each day of the program allowed someone to experience a different facet of Israeli culture. The program had many types of activities, including prominent speakers and activities related to Israeli fashion, cooking, authors and poets, education and Shabbat. The program could appeal to a wide range of interests and allow students to see Israel as a place with a rich culture and advanced achievements.
The final speaker, Lia Weiner, from Yale University, had come from Israel to attend college in America and was disappointed to find little to no engagement or civil discourse between the two sides. Believing this to be a core barrier in resolving the conflict, Wiener came up with the idea of mock negotiations. She recruited David Makovsky, a top negotiator for Israel, and Nathan O’Malley, long-time adviser to the Palestinian negotiation teams, and proposed assigning each of them 10 students from the opposite side of the conflict to prepare them to represent the side they would normally oppose. “This experiment is meant to allow students who grew up understanding only one side of the conflict to not only understand the other side, but to craft arguments for it, to identify core concerns and to advocate for it,” Weiner explained. “Rather than turning toward boycotting and anti-normalization, let’s turn college campuses from another battlefield into the example that we want to see in the Middle East.”
After a few minutes of deliberation, the judges announced that the winner was Weiner, the final speaker. When asked about how she believed her initiative could impact the conversation about Israel on campus, Wiener was very optimistic: “The idea is to have students who have only exposure to one side to step into the shoes of someone who thinks opposite from the way they do... I don’t expect them to change their opinions, but I expect them to have respect for the opinions of others.” Wiener also expressed her appreciation for the event and what it represents. “It’s so encouraging to know that people want to be talking to one another, and they want to be engaging. . . I think that is a huge vote of confidence, in all of these initiatives, in dialogue. The fact that the World Jewish Congress is standing behind that, that’s just beautiful to me.”
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a former Jewish Link summer intern and a proud Jewish Link contributor.