Jewish, Zionist Students at University of Illinois Step Up Amid Israel Delegtimization Campaign
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” This was the main lesson I took with me from my first time at the AIPAC policy conference this past March. This line exemplifies the pro-Israel community’s unprecedented response to the Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) during the week of April 7th.
IAW has been an annual feature at my university and has always been a week of worry and fear for Jewish and pro-Israel students. During this time, many stay away from the Main Quad, where IAW displays can be seen, because they feel attacked for their beliefs. In the past, Israel advocates have not made a coordinated effort to respond to the demonstrations, instead preferring a proactive Israel advocacy platform over a reactive one. This year was different.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the main supporter of IAW at on campus, had been mostly inactive throughout the semester. It was the first time in two years, for instance, that no referendum supporting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel was pushed onto the student election ballot. There were doubts among some students as to whether there would even be IAW programming this year. However, after Shabbat on April 6th, students checked their phones and saw that SJP had announced that IAW would be taking place the following week. The current Israel advocacy leaders on campus decided to come together and coordinate a response.
Early Sunday morning, close to a dozen Jewish student leaders and Israel advocates met at the Illini Hillel and Illini Chabad to prepare. We wanted to present the other side of SJP’s arguments while also providing a space for intimidated students to discuss their feelings. One student leader, Aaron Merlin, the social chair for Illini Students Supporting Israel, came up with a simple yet ingenious plan to accomplish these goals. We would set up a table on a different part of the Main Quad and offer people the opportunity to have an open dialogue about anything Israel-related. We agreed that we did not want to be confrontational and that we would not approach SJP and their “Apartheid Wall.” Instead, we prepared “myth and fact” sheets to hand out and offered free “coffee and conversation.”
While some people were not interested in dialogue, many pro-Palestinian students did engage in discourse with Israel advocates. Even more impressively, after 20 hours of tabling, we had over 300 conversations and about 40 people were interested in learning more. The people who talked with us ranged from those who had never heard of Israel, to those who had set opinions on the conflict. Many students told us that they felt safer and prouder when they saw us out in public, ensuring SJP’s accusations did not go unopposed. It was certainly the most successful Israel table in my time on campus, and perhaps in the history of Israel advocacy at UIUC.
Our response to IAW this year has demonstrated to me and other campus Israel leaders that people are looking to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through dialogue. Students of all levels of familiarity with the conflict engaged in discussions and gave us their emails to continue the interaction. Some even approached us and asked if they could get more involved in Israel advocacy. Had we not been on the quad, 300 people would have been left indifferent to or ignorant of the crucial facts and perspectives that inform our views on the conflict as Jewish and pro-Israel students.
The success of our endeavor also inspired us by demonstrating that we are capable of educating large numbers of people and having a real impact on campus. While student leaders in Israel advocacy may be graduating at the end of May, the future for our community at UIUC is as strong as ever. We look forward to many more accomplishments as new Israel leaders emerge on campus.