Conn College students create a winning program to foster Mid-East dialogue on campus
By Judie Jacobson
For several years now, the Jewish community has been wringing its collective hands, worrying about the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment on American campuses – a sentiment that all too often translates into acts of blatant antisemitism. Now, a new initiative aims to stem that tide. And Connecticut is playing a role in the effort.
A team of three students from Connecticut College in New London are among five student groups from across the tri-state area who are winners of the first annual Campus Pitch Competition, a joint initiative of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the Israeli Consulate in New York. The competition is the culminating event of a semester-long campaign in which student groups from the tri-state region submitted proposals for events, initiatives and ideas to broaden the conversation about Israel and Jewish issues on campus.
“Campuses all over the country have been taken over by the dangerous initiatives of those seeking to boycott and delegitimize Israel and Jewish communities, movements that are gaining steam and popular support at alarming rates,” said World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer. “The World Jewish Congress fully stands behind the advocacy efforts to fight these anti-Israel, anti-Jewish campaigns. Thanks to the courage and determination of these students, we can and we will change the conversation on campuses.”
The winning proposal came from Baruch College in New York, for which the group was awarded $5,000.
The Connecticut College team, as well as teams from New York University Law School, Stony Brook College, and Binghamton University, each were awarded $2,500 to help fund their projects.
The Connecticut team members are: Simon Luxemburg from South Windsor, a sophomore majoring in international relations and economics; Connor Wolfe of Scarsdale, N.Y., a junior majoring in economics, and Daniel Kramer of Livingston, N.J., a sophomore majoring in history and government. All three are Executive Board members of their campus Hillel.
The Ledger spoke with Luxemburg about his team’s winning project and how they hope to implement it.
Q: Why did you decide to enter?
A: I learned about the Campus Pitch competition from one of my friends on Facebook. I clicked the link, saw the basic outline of the program, and immediately knew that it was something that I needed to pursue. I immediately shared the great opportunity with members of my Hillel Executive Board, Daniel Kramer and Connor Wolfe. We spent a great deal of time brainstorming, theorizing, and mostly reflecting on past events that have transpired on campus.
We decided to enter the competition for many reasons. First of all, after the events that occurred on our campus in the spring 2015 semester [see “Facebook Controversy: Part II – A Conn College professor’s decision not to return to the classroom leaves many questions unanswered,” Jewish Ledger, Aug. 21, 2015, at www.jewishledger.com]. As Hillel student-leaders, we saw the need to reintroduce Israel in a more positive light to our campus.
Additionally, as a Hillel organization we have always had Israel programming. Yet, this year many of us see Israel as a central part of our own Jewish identities. Thus, we have made a conscious effort to increase our Israel programming. Furthermore, as a growing Jewish community and Hillel, we don’t have a great deal of funding; that frequently limits our potential for getting many speakers or hosting certain events. The thought of getting monetary support for Israel, Jewish, and diversity programming made the prospect of competing very intriguing.
Q: Describe your proposal.
A: When we talk about Israel on campus, we want to approach the topic from a diverse set of opinions and facets, but most importantly through education. Just like Israel has many characteristics, we want our programming to have many characteristics. To focus purely on the political side of Israel would be a big oversight as there is much to learn about a flourishing culture, economy, and society. Yet, not to talk about the politics of the region obviously would not do justice to the complexities of current issues in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others.
So we propose to do the following:
On March 30 we will bring to campus Bassem Eid, the founder and director of the Jerusalem-Based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and the current chairman of the Center for Near East Policy Research. Joining him will be Muhammed Barhum, an Israeli-Arab factory manager at a SodaStream plant in Israel, and Erez Zadok, an Israeli Jew who currently serves as the CEO of Aviv Fund Management. The speakers will discuss the Palestinian economic system, and opportunities for collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians. They will use real-life examples from their own experiences living, working, and investing in Israel and the territories to explain their hopes for future prosperity in the Palestinian economic system.
Next, we will step away from politics and turn towards culture. We are currently planning an event focused on either Israeli art or Middle Eastern food. This event will connect students to Israel in a way that has never previously occurred on campus. When it is fully planned, the event will be revolutionary and will help students, both Jews and non-Jews, learn much more about the thriving Israeli culture.
Lastly, we will host a series of film screenings, coupled with discussions. There are various films that do a great job covering a broad set of topics in terms of Judaism, Israel, the Middle East, and more. These events will be relatively inexpensive and are destined to have a lasting impact on participants. The discussions following each film will be stimulating and engaging.
Q: Who will be invited to participate?
A: Most of our events will be focused on the campus community, and most will specifically target students. As all of our Hillel programming, our events this spring will be open to all faculty, staff, and students who want to participate. [Some] events, including the Palestinian and Israeli Economy event on March 30, will be open to individuals in the local community. Most specifically we will open our event up to participation from the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, as our Hillel club has long-lasting ties with the local Jewish community.
Q: What do you hope your Israel Pitch project adds to the campus conversation regarding Israel?
A: The Israel-related climate at Connecticut College is complicated. We face challenges that many schools throughout the United States face, but we hope to tackle certain problems in a manner that is specific to our campus community and environment as a whole. For the most part, the topic of Israel lingers on campus and stays dormant until an event occurs that specifically focuses on Israel or the Middle East. Then, we see either anti-Israel students or pro-Israel students jumping into action, filled frequently with emotion and passion. What we fail to see at Connecticut College are events geared towards the hope of peace in the future for both Israeli and Palestinian children, and the desire for mutual coexistence. We hope that through our Campus Pitch project and funding from the World Jewish Congress we can create events where members of the campus community can learn about a complex issue from a variety of perspectives and approaches. We hope this causes students not to leave events angry, but rather to engage in constructive dialogue where analysis can be utilized rather than pure advocacy. To approach this complex issue through education and varied perspectives will be the most important step in creating a campus environment where everyone will feel engaged by the dialogue.
CAP: (l to r) Simon Luxemburg, Connor Wolfe, and Daniel Kramer in front of the Zachs Hillel House on the campus of Connecticut College.