Grassroots effort combats campus anti-Zionism ‘from the inside’

Click photo to download. Caption: The first national conference of Students Supporting Israel. Credit: Courtesy Students Supporting Israel.

 

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Activism. Not re-activism. Education. Preparation.

These are just a few of the mantras a new pro-Israel organization uses to encourage participation. Fast-growing Students Supporting Israel (SSI) was founded in 2012 at the University of Minnesota. Today, it has 43 chapters across four countries. Last month, SSI held its first-ever national conference, which was attended by 50 pro-Israel leaders from 28 college campuses.

SSI’s founder, Ilan Sinelnikov, believes that student-led grassroots efforts are more effective on college campuses than the campus arms of larger Jewish non-profit organizations. He also believes that one unified brand and message has the ability to go viral, and that only then will pro-Israel activities have the impact students are hoping for.

“The problems on college campuses must be solved from the inside,” Sinelnikov tells JNS.org. “If we want to change the situation on college campuses, we must be united on our campuses, and the efforts must come from pro-Israel student activists. We are the agents of change; no one else can do it. When we stand together, we will win.”

In 2012, Sinelnikov—then an undergraduate student at University of Minnesota—founded SSI in response to “seeing people speak so badly all over campus about our country and no one responding” during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” the annual global anti-Israel showcase on college campuses.

“I walked out of these ‘Apartheid Week’ events and realized I had to do something,” Sinelnikov says.

Click photo to download. Caption: A Students Supporting Israel member (center) in the field. Credit: Courtesy Students Supporting Israel.

The first thing he did was register a student organization. He trained two others to work with him, and the team quickly grew to 10, 15, 20, and more. Today, there are more than 240.

“When people think of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), they think it is all happening in areas like California. They forget there is a lot of hostile activity in Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Chicago,” says Sinelnikov.

Indeed, SSI has focused much of its efforts on what some might consider less-obvious hotspots for campus anti-Zionism.

“Being pro-Israel and supporting Israel should not be in response to anti-Israel sentiment,” says Chantelle Moghadam, co-founder and president of the SSI chapter at the University of Missouri. “We don’t see that much anti-Israel sentiment on our campus, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have things to do.”

In April 2014, when there were anti-Israel divestment measures being passed by student government nationwide, SSI was instrumental in getting the first-ever explicitly pro-Israel legislation passed by a student government on a college campus, at the University of Minnesota. 

The legislation—or declaration—speaks to a deep respect for and connection with the Jewish state.

“Whereas Israel is the one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, with the highest ratings in human rights and democracy in the region…the Minnesota Student Association supports expanding study abroad opportunities in the Middle East, specifically Israel, with a concentration in business, science, engineering, and agriculture,” it states.

That declaration was a turning point for SSI. It scored Sinelnikov an invite to the Israeli Consulate Student Leadership Conference in Chicago, where he met other student activists who were grappling with anti-Zionism on their own campuses. When they learned of SSI, they reached out to Sinelnikov, who was willing to support their efforts and was determined to increase SSI brand awareness as well as pro-Israel student unity—from the ground up.

Amit Boukai, a neuroscience student at Indiana University, quickly got on board. She says the school has never had any “real issues” with anti-Israel activity, “yet I realized we cannot wait for that to become an issue.…I knew that leaving our campus vulnerable by having no Israel conversation was worse than being proactive.”

When Boukai opened a Facebook page for Indiana University’s SSI chapter in 2014, it had more than 100 likes within the first day. 

“The fight for Israel’s right to exist and defend herself is no longer on the ground in Israel, but has been imported to our campuses,” says Boukai. “To be able to defend Israel, students need to organize on their own and have multiple resources at hand, with multiple methods and tools to advocate on their campuses.…When there is no coalition, partnership, or unity, pro-Israel students are weak in front of either an apathetic campus or a campus being swayed by an international student organization that has been legitimized over the last decade or so as a pro-peace organization—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).”

According to an August 2015 study by the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), “While there was a significant increase in campus BDS campaigns during the academic year [2014-15], the rate at which BDS campaigns were defeated on campuses nationwide remained relatively static.”

The study indicates that anti-Israel student activists were finding success by recruiting and supporting pro-BDS student government candidates, who then introduced and passed anti-Israel legislation. In 2014, SJP established a presence at 40 additional campuses, bringing its total number of chapters to 150. At the same time, states the study, the number of campuses hosting pro-Israel activities increased from 167 during the 2013-14 school year to 213 during this past academic year.

SJP, which the Anti-Defamation League has ranked as one of the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the U.S., did not return multiple requests for comment from JNS.org.

Sinelnikov—whose SSI chapters in 2014-15 spearheaded pro-Israel legislation in the student governments of the University of Georgia, Texas A&M University, and the University of Nevada—believes SSI accounts for much of the pro-Israel growth and success that was indicated in the ICC study.

“Being pro-active, telling our Israel story, passion, [and] experience is what connects to a disconnected crowd,” says Boukai. “We are sharing and making Israel personal.”

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on September 9, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..