This July, Brandeis University published a report titled “Antisemitism and the College Campus.” Among the key findings, it was reported that universities in the Midwest are overrepresented among those schools with the highest average levels of hostility towards Israel. This did not surprise me because when I moved from Israel after my military service to study at the University of Minnesota, every year I witnessed many anti-Israel events such as the “apartheid week,” and other clearly anti-Israel messages all around campus. But, what I did not see, was any clear message to counter all of this.
Together with my brother, Ilan Sinelnikov, we decided to act. We registered a campus group called Students Supporting Israel, with three things that we wanted to accomplish in mind:
First: Change the defensive tone of our conversations. When someone on campus says to me that Israel is an “apartheid state” and I respond with, “No it is not. We actually want peace,” this is not the correct approach. We do need to talk about peace, but at the same time be confident also asking the other side if they want it, too and what they are doing, or not doing, for it.
Second: Talk about Israel not only through the lens of conflict. The first association of students when they hear about Israel should not be the conflict with the Palestinians. We need to talk about Israel’s unique history, diversity, and most importantly, the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish people. Only when we talk about that, will the conversation about the conflict not be a one-sided discussion.
Third: Stop just preaching to the choir. Supporting Israel is not just for Jews, and we need to build coalitions. Every student who is interested in women’s rights, LGBT rights, or green technology, can find something in common with Israel whether if they are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, a Democrat or a Republican.
When we started to implement this approach at the University of Minnesota, we saw that there was a real need on the grassroots level for change. As a community we put a lot of effort into lobbying our elected leaders to support Israel, but we should not forget the students who will be in office in 10 or 15 years from now. To understand the extent of the need, I will share with you that in three years, from one group, we now have 47 chapters of Students Supporting Israel in the United States and Canada, with hundreds of students joining our vision.
We are hosting dozens of events targeting the entire campus community; we passed several pro-Israel resolutions in student governments. In August of this year, our first national conference in Minneapolis was attended by 50 students, who believe that we need a united, and confident, national student movement to promote a clear pro-Israel message, fight BDS, antisemitism, and speak out against anti-Israel propaganda.
Today Students Supporting Israel is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and we work with many organizations and communities nationwide, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We are proud to lead this movement from our home here in Minneapolis, and I invite you to join us and support our important work on campus.
To learn more about Students Supporting Israel, please visit our website at www.ssimovement.org
Valeria Sinelnikov Chazin gave this speech as an acceptance of the 2015 Arthur T. Pfefer Award from the Cardozo Society, the joint Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations’ lawyer affinity group, for her work founding Students Supporting Israel. The award is given to one young lawyer or law student each year for their professional achievements and service to the community.