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August 11, 2023 9:18 am

‘Never Feel Alone’: Israel on Campus Coalition Hosts Student Conference Amidst Changing Climate for Zionist Students


avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Marty Geller, Lauren Schor Geller, Talia Segal, Issac Litchman, Morgan Ames, and Keron Campbell pictured during Israel on Campus Coalition’s National Leadership Summit in Washington DC on August 8, 2023. Photo: ICC

Over 400 Jewish and non-Jewish Zionist student leaders packed the Capitol Hilton in Washington DC this week to attend Israel on Campus Coalition’s (ICC) National Leadership Summit, a three day conference for reflecting on the triumphs of the pro-Israel movement on college campuses as well as the challenges it faces going forward.

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, such challenges are immense, ranging from the expulsion of Jewish students from school clubs to outright bans on Zionists speakers and more outward expressions of hatred, including the graffitiing of swastikas on or near Jewish institutions and adoption of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. Within this context, ICC last year began holding an annual summit to create a space for pro-Israel students to share strategies, experiences, and contacts, and in the process forge an association of common goals spanning across the country.

Founded in 2002, the Israel on Campus Coalition is a nonprofit organization that describes its mission as inspiring college students to defend and be proud of Israel. One of its major initiatives is the “microgrants” programs, which helps pro-Israel campus groups organize events about Israeli culture and society. Another, the ICC Community Impact Fellowship, awards college students a $1,000 stipend for completing a leadership seminar in which they are trained in civic engagement, coalition building, and rapidly responding to antisemitic and anti-Israel events on their campuses.

This year’s leadership summit was, ICC chief executive officer Jacob Baime told The Algemeiner during an interview on Monday, the largest its history.

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“We went in three years from 50 students to 400.” Baime said. “Last summer, we had 200 attending, so it’s an escalation reflecting that challenges are growing and there’s a real thirst on the part of pro-Israel students across the country for community and camaraderie. While the conference does have some tangible goals, such as teaching students how to elect student government officials, how to build strong and diverse coalitions on campus, and respond to antisemitic and anti-Israel activity on campus— if you take a step back the larger purpose is ensuring that they never feel alone but part of a national network for the next generation.”

Baime added that ICC’s efforts address the importance of the college campus as a “critical” theater in the “battle in the information space” between pro-Zionists and anti-Zionists. College campuses, he explained, are receiving large investments from anti-Zionist groups hoping to transport their message from the classroom to the halls of Congress, newsrooms, social media, and corporate America. Parallel to these developments are changes in communication and technology that have made so-called “organic” grassroots methods of organization obsolete, ushering in a new era of “well funded, professional anti-Israel organizations that are pouring sophisticated political resources onto our campuses.”

It’s a mistake, he continued, to believe that modern political movements emerge spontaneously and fully-formed. Fostering interest and commitment is, he added, imperative, and social media is optimal for doing so. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the “digisphere” became the forum for anti-Israel students, who flocked to student government meetings held on Zoom to lobby for the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement and resolutions condemning Israel’s existence. Since then, “the pro-Israel space, ICC included, has caught up, transitioning more fully to a digital-first world.”

“It’s really difficult to separate the campus conversation on Israel from the broader conversation because it is what is driving discussions on Instagram, TikTok, and SnapChat, making it crucial to provide students with campus specific support,” Baime said. “Our adversaries are really smart and savvy. Communicating with our students online and then bringing them together for events like this conference, where we share with them the latest digital resources, is of the highest value.”

The strength of this year’s conference is proof that the Zionist movement on college campuses remains formidable, students told The Algemeiner.

“The pro-Israel community is resilient because we fought so hard for Israel to exist in the first place, so there’s absolutely no way that we would allow anybody to wipe out its existence,” said University of California-Santa Barbara rising senior Tessa Veksler, who is the first Shabbat-observant to lead the school’s student government. “We have constantly had to fight for our right to exist in this world and defend ourselves, and we’ve seen what happens if we don’t prevail. We are very determined. We are not willing to lose the battle of ideas to people who are just really loud.”

The leadership summit also showcased the pro-Israel movement’s growing racial diversity, with dozens of Black students representing Historically Black Colleges and Universities attending it and speaking on panels about their efforts to be ambassadors of  ICC on their campuses.

Keron Campbell, a recent graduate of Morehouse College who is Catholic and was adamant that he is not politically conservative, told The Algemeiner that Israel is central to his identity too. Expressing that has sometimes triggered criticism from his peer group and community, but, he said, he is steadfast in his opposition to antisemitism, which, he noted, includes holding Israel to a double standard.

“One thing I noticed growing up is that the media was so biased towards Israel, and it clicked in my head that it was so one-sided, and I wondered what is the root of that,” Campbell explained. “I started to figure out that it was antisemitism driving the narrative. How sharply Israel was criticized stood out, and it seemed curious that other countries committing obvious violations of human rights were barely mentioned.”

He added, “The fact that Israel is a country receiving so much flack for being Jewish — being proud of it — causes me so much concern, and I just think that anyone who believes in basic human rights but can’t extend those beliefs to Israel is being unfair and hateful.”

An ICC spokesperson told The Algemeiner that the group’s programming will continue improving and expanding, stretching beyond the borders of the US. In January, it will send a cohort of 40 Jewish and non-Jewish students participating in its Geller International Fellowship to the United Arab Emirates, a trip that is aimed showing students first hand how the relationship between that country and Israel has evolved since they normalized relations with the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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