Pro-Israel campus group’s new director seeks to empower Jewish students

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Jacob Baime (pictured), who worked in multiple capacities for AIPAC, is the new executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. Credit: Courtesy Jacob Baime.

In a story of “what goes around, comes around” in the pro-Israel world, Jacob Baime will seek to empower Jewish students through a group that empowered him.

Baime credits a $2,500 grant from the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC)—enabling him to charter a bus of fellow Brandeis University students to Washington, DC, to lobby some 25 members of Congress from 12 states—with helping to launch his pro-Israel career. After working in multiple capacities for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the 28-year-old Baime was recently named the ICC’s new executive director.

“One of our roles is to be catalytic and not proprietary,” Baime says of the ICC, which was founded in 2002 as a partnership between Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and is now an independent organization that works closely with Hillel as well as the national spectrum of pro-Israel campus groups. “In other words, we identify specific challenges and opportunities and match both our own resources, and the resources of our partner organizations, to those challenges and opportunities.”

Asked what pro-Israel students need the most from Jewish organizations, Baime tells JNS.org, “In one word, they need to be empowered, in any number of ways.”

Students need the tools to address the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement “before, during, and after a BDS campaign comes to campus,” he says.

“We’ve got to prevent anti-Israel forces from making inroads with campus leaders,” Baime says. “We’ve got to deny Israel’s detractors the opportunity to set the parameters of the campus conversation about Israel, and at the same time, we’ve got to fortify the confidence of the pro-Israel members of the campus community. Because in my view, the greatest threat of BDS is the erosion of confidence of the pro-Israel students and others on campus.”

While Israel’s detractors “are constantly seeking to drive a wedge between the college campus and the state of Israel,” the ICC’s response is to “forge new ties between key constituencies on those campuses and their Israeli counterparts,” Baime says. For example, the ICC works closely with the Israel investment group Tamid.

“Tamid is doing incredible work to expose business students and people who are interested in entrepreneurship with their Israeli counterparts, and to bring the whole idea of ‘start-up nation’ to the campus,” Baime says. “I think there are a number of areas where we can do similar work, and I think we can see Tamid as a shining example and a model of what works in terms of forging those new ties.”

The ICC’s strategy also includes what Baime calls a “whole campus approach” to pro-Israel advocacy, through the engagement of not just undergraduates, but also graduate students, professors, administrators, alumni, and boards of directors.

“It’s woefully insufficient to ask the undergraduates—the constituency that’s on campus for the least amount of time—to make the campus safe for themselves,” he says.

While Baime’s undergraduate years were spent on the heavily Jewish campus of Brandeis, where Jewish students would presumably feel safe, he says that situation presented unique challenges.

“Students [at campuses like Brandeis with large Jewish populations] feel they’re in an inherently pro-Israel environment, and they aren’t necessarily motivated to get involved,” Baime says. Another challenge on campus was “overextension,” he says, explaining that students can be involved in so many different activities that they are unable “to really commit to Israel activism.”

As the national field director of AIPAC, Baime supervised a national team of professional campus organizers, oversaw strategic campus initiatives, and managed 10 national training platforms for college and high school students. Most recently, he served as area director for AIPAC’s New England Region.

“AIPAC’s campus program is one of its crown jewels, and the training I received from AIPAC gave me a really firm grasp on how the campus works, [and on] the various players,” Baime says. “I think that as a result of my work with AIPAC on campus, I understand how to identify, develop, and mobilize campus resources in support of Israel.”

At the ICC, Baime will oversee the group’s close partnership with Hillel, the North American network of campus centers. He calls Hillel “a key player in the Israel campus network, if not the key player.”

Hillel, which has grown to more than 550 locations across North America, also recently hired a new executive, former Ohio congressman Eric Fingerhut. The organization has been faced with the question of which groups belong under its “big tent,” one that according to Hillel policy welcomes students of every Jewish background and denomination. At the same time, Hillel also has official Israel Guidelines that state it will not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.”

Fingerhut told JNS.org when he was hired in July that he is “certainly aware” of how Hillel’s commitment to Israel “is challenged from time to time on campuses.” But Hillel’s board of directors “made absolutely clear” that it was seeking a president and CEO who would ensure the organization lives up to its Israel Guidelines, and that was part of what persuaded Fingerhut to take the job, he said.

The ICC has the policy of supporting the democratically elected government of Israel, and only partners with organizations who share that policy, Baime says. He also believes in the “big tent” approach.

“The Jewish community is and always has been radically pluralistic, and I don’t see any sign of that changing in the future,” he says. “I think that as a starting point, that’s something to embrace.”

Baime believes an important decision for the Jewish community revolves around Taglit-Birthright Israel trip participants who return to campus “with difficult questions, about human rights, about the conduct of the state of Israel.”

“I think that we can push those students away, and say, ‘we’re done with you,’ or we can embrace them, we can have the conversation, we can find intelligent ways to answer their questions, and hopefully bring them to a better place,” he says. “I think it’s important to focus on the latter, and I do think it’s important that every student on campus who wants to build a personal relationship with Israel has the opportunity to do so.”

In that vein, Baime says Hillel is “doing incredible and vital work at campuses all across the country to support Israel, and to help every student build that personal relationship with Israel, and I think that’s the key.”

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Posted on October 6, 2013 and filed under Features, U.S..