Israel advocacy on college campuses is often centered on a group of dedicated students sharing “the facts” about an extraordinary little democracy in the world’s most volatile region with an apathetic or sometimes openly hostile student body. This activism revolves around being armed with talking points to regurgitate when your beliefs are challenged. Having the perfect response when confronted by an anti-Israel student and holding the view that Israel is always right are seen as more important than understanding the complexities and nuance of the situation. Most Israel advocacy trips follow this model: Take college students, the vast majority of whom are Jewish, on trips that reinforce these talking points while hearing from speakers who, for the most part, espouse the same views.
The David Project, a national pro-Israel organization, utilizes a different approach to advocate for Israel on campus. Called relational advocacy, campus interns work to build relationships with diverse student groups to increase understanding of Israel through collaboration and inclusivity. One of the pillars behind the relational advocacy approach is the idea that anyone can relate to Israel, regardless of their background.
Over winter break, I was fortunate enough to be part of one of the organization’s signature initiatives, the Israel Uncovered: Campus Leaders Mission. Participating universities’ delegations consisted of one Jewish student and a number of non-Jewish student leaders from communities that campus interns engaged with. My bus was made up of 39 students from six universities, 33 of whom were not Jewish. Our group included Muslims and Christians (as well as some who did not identify with any religion), liberals and conservatives, people who had some prior knowledge about Israel and others who knew nothing at all.
The first activity after arriving was a discussion about the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Questions like, “What does it mean to be a Jewish state?” and “In what ways has Israel lived up to the ideals described in this document?” were things I never really had to have answers to in my Jewish bubble. Conversations about topics like this would become one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Our first full day was dedicated to exploring different communities that make up southern Israel’s geographic and social periphery. During our visit to Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city, we met with community activists and explored issues ranging from racism within Bedouin society to the need for more government investment in education. In Sderot, we visited a playground with a snake-shaped structure that serves as a shelter during rocket and missile attacks from Gaza and met with residents determined to live normal lives in the face of so many security threats.
At Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, we talked about the late prime minister’s legacy and the impact of his assassination on Israeli society. Our conversation centered on the idea that how we talk to and about each other matters, because words can often lead to violence.
In Jerusalem, we toured the Supreme Court and met former Justice Izhak Englard, who spoke about the importance of a strong and independent judiciary and the Israeli legal system. At Yad Vashem, we learned about the darkest time of human history and left determined to fight against evil in all its forms. On Shabbat, we spent time at the Kotel, where Jewish and non-Jewish students alike left notes in the ancient cracks. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one of several Christian holy sites we visited, and the Muslim students got to tour the Temple Mount. Seeing my new friends find their own spiritual connection to Israel made this trip unlike any other I have ever been part of.
During a meeting with a Palestinian journalist and tour operator, we learned about recent Palestinian political developments and the impact of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on the Palestinian economy. In Bethlehem, a city in the Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank, we toured the Church of the Nativity and met with a local Palestinian Authority official who compared Israel to Nazi Germany. This, along with the fact that I had to downplay my Jewishness made Bethlehem the most emotionally challenging part of the trip. Later that day we toured the security fence and visited Efrat in the Etzion Bloc, where we met a council member opposed to a two-state solution and two members of the Roots coexistence initiative.
My experience on Israel Uncovered was truly life-changing. Over 10 short days, we visited sites revered by billions, met social and political activists, and explored issues that are, to say the least, complicated. Getting to share this journey with a diverse group of students is something I will always cherish. Despite all of its challenges, Israel is an incredible country filled with remarkable people and awe-inspiring stories, and I could not be prouder to call myself a Zionist.
Brian Burke is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh and member of the Hillel Jewish Student Union Board. He serves as president of Panthers for Israel, is a campus intern with The David Project and sits on their National Student Board. He can be reached at BMB118@pitt.edu.