We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
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In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”

The Conversation About Hopkins Tuition Is Long Overdue

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 24th, 2014.
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Johns Hopkins undergraduate tuition has risen from $37,700 in the 2008-2009 academic year to $45,470 in 2013-2014. This steep increase is one that continues to grow, virtually unquestioned by the student body, and with no end in sight.

Hopkins has defended the rising price, saying that tuition increased each year at only an average annual rate of 3.8%, compared to an average annual rate of 5.6% in the five years prior. But still, it’s well worth asking, what is this money for?

This past month, the Delta Costa Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan social-science organization came out with a new report on costs in higher education. The report, “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, concluded that between 2000-2012, expansion in wages and salaries in higher education came not from instruction or academic support but from student services, including athletics, admissions, psychological counseling and career services.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, “just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.”

Hopkins and other universities have rationalized their expansion of student services by pointing to external regulations as well as pressure from students, parents and policymakers. Indeed issues like sexual assault and campus mental health have received substantial news coverage recently. And there are some new positions, like the Director of LGBTQ life on campus, which were enthusiastically met with widespread approval.

However, there is more to the story.

JHU Political Science professor, Ben Ginsberg, has written a book entitled “The Fall of the Faculty” which delves into what he observes as severe bureaucratic bloat in higher education. He sees our nation’s burgeoning administrative sector driving up the cost of education with little verifiable value in return. He contends that the growth of the administration has resulted in a shift of power away from the faculty.

“In the old days, if the President of the University lost the faith of the faculty he couldn’t do his job,” said Ginsberg in an interview. “Now he circumvents that and the president has become relatively autonomous. It’s presidential imperialism.”

As Ginsberg argues in The Washington Monthly, “Universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.”

We go to a private research university, so the rising costs of our education carry different political significance than that of state institutions, which are also seeing increases in price. And yet, it’s a mistake to think that somehow negates the difficult impact of these costs.

Notably, the financial aid budget has increased under President Daniels’ administration, with grant aid for Homewood undergraduates increasing from $50 million in 2008-09 to just under $75 million in 2013-14. According to Director of Media Relations, Tracey Reeves, more than 40% of Homewood undergraduates receive assistance to offset the cost of attending Johns Hopkins.

Nevertheless, while expanding the amount of assistance is surely good, with an ever-increasing cost of attendance, at some point it just becomes impossible for many students who might have otherwise been able to attend. Then at that point, our students, faculty and administrators have to ask themselves if the administrative growth and the expansion of student services is worth it at the expense of making the cost of attendance too expensive for many otherwise qualified students to afford.

Perhaps there could be alternative models for degree seeking students, for those who want to come and get a Johns Hopkins education but do not want or cannot afford to pay for the sectors of the University that they will never plan to utilize, like student activities, Greek life and athletics.

Or perhaps the status quo, with hopes that financial aid can adequately meliorate the burden, is the best solution given the difficulties of implementing any alternative system. There aren’t easy answers to these questions.

The point is, however, that our school has never really had the opportunity to openly discuss and debate these issues and explore the larger consequences of these growing economic trends.

 This must change; none of these choices are, or should be mistaken as, inevitable.

Where are the STEM jobs?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2013. 
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Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on at least one thing: that the United States is facing a STEM (science, technology engineering and math) crisis. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that he wants to “reward schools” that focus on STEM classes, for they are “the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” And as far to the other end of the political spectrum as you can get, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas deemed May 6-12 to be the first ever “Celebration of STEM Education Week in Texas.”

I’m an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University — by all measures, a very STEM-oriented institution. I’m studying history and sociology, and it’s quite common for students like me to envy those with academic talents enabling them to major in fields like chemical engineering or neuroscience. Bleak job reports and doomsday rhetoric from our nation’s leaders reinforce this idea that maybe the remainder of us studying the liberal arts are somehow putting a drain on our society, and preventing the United States from “competing effectively” with other nations.

And yet, it turns out that the job prospects for my STEM-oriented classmates may not be so great either.

Recently, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that challenged conventional wisdom; the report says that over half of students with STEM degrees each year are unable to find STEM employment upon graduation. Additionally, STEM wages have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly indicate a surplus of STEM workers, not a dearth. The problem points to a lack of jobs, not of qualified workers.

Of course, science, technology, engineering and math are important fields, and we should aim to provide exemplary education for students interested in such subjects. But there is a danger in creating a false hope that if only we got everyone to switch from English to math, our economy would suddenly soar. Unemployment in the United States is at 7.5 percent, which is 3.2 points higher than the pre-recession low. The deep-seated unemployment in our country will require not only job training in STEM fields but also things like monetary and fiscal stimulus to boost employment during this rough period.

The alleged STEM crisis has also been a popular point of agreement among lawmakers and tech moguls as Congress struggles to draft an immigration reform bill. It’s been politically safe to say that we must carve an easy path for STEM foreign workers to come to our country in order to boost our global competitiveness — in fact, one of the few amendments accepted in the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill this week was a provision to increase the number of visas for such high-skill workers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a new organization, called FWD.us, to bolster support for, among other things, an increase in the number of visas granted to foreign skilled workers.

However, Science Careers, a branch of Science magazine, reported that the bill would make already congested labor markets even more competitive with the influx of foreign workers. Additionally, STEM labor force expert Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who spoke in April at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the proposed immigration legislation, adamantly refutes the notion that there is an overall STEM shortage in the United States. He argues that H1-B and other worker visa programs have lowered wages and allowed for more labor exploitation in domestic STEM markets.

The 844-page immigration bill would quadruple or quintuple the number of high-skill visas currently allowed in the United States. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Elizabeth Dwoskin writes, “If you’re a recent college graduate, a doctoral candidate, or a highly skilled professional who has been in the job market the past few years, you know it’s rough out there. But if the immigration overhaul proposed in the Senate … becomes law, it’s likely to get a lot rougher.”

The bill would be great for businesses like Mr. Zuckerberg’s that are looking to hire talented workers at lower prices. However, for American citizens graduating with STEM degrees and struggling to find employment today, it may not look so great.

Science, technology, engineering and math are important skills in the 21st century economy. But unfortunately, even they turn out to be no guarantee.

Is gay marriage a gateway issue for political activism?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 29, 2013.

This week, as the Supreme Court took up two historic cases pertaining to same-sex marriage, it’s been an exciting time to be a college student. Huge numbers of young people on Facebook and Twitter continue to post pictures and status updates in support of marriage equality. Kids proudly walk around campus sporting red clothing in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that seeks to promote equal rights for gays, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The enthusiasm, from the quad to the blogosphere, is infectious and inspiring.

“As an LGBT student at Hopkins, I have been truly humbled by the way that my fellow students have rallied around this issue,” said Danielle Stern, who, like me, is a junior at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopkins isn’t a campus where students get excited easily.”

For so many of us, this feels like our civil rights moment. We grew up studying the struggles of our great-grandparents, our grandparents and our parents who fought for racial equality and social justice. But for me and for my peers, who grew up in an era marked by questionable wars in the Middle East, which in turn seemed to promote Islamophobia at home, politics seemed to represent a smarmy, dark, and at best, unengaging enterprise.

But suddenly there is an issue that people can get excited about. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 81 percent of 18-29 year olds support marriage equality. And that figure, though staggering to some, is not all that surprising. We’re the generation that grew up with Ellen Degeneres, Will and Grace, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean. Gay role models today exist in almost every arena. Not supporting gay rights seems so at odds with everything we’ve grown up with. In the eyes of the youth, it’s bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

As I watch my friends from the left and right get their first taste of political activism in support of marriage equality, I wonder, could this type of involvement be here to stay?

In some respects, it is hard to imagine another type of issue that could garner such massive, broad-based support, yet political science tells us that political participation begets more political participation. Could gay marriage be the “gateway issue” for more kids to engage in the politics?

Penn State political scientist Eric Plutzer found that often the most motivating factor for voters to turn out to the polls is simply that they have developed the habit to vote before. “Interest does not lead to participation,” Mr. Plutzer said. “Rather, participation promotes interest.” In other words, perhaps the most successful way to get Americans to vote throughout their lifetimes is to get them to vote for their first time.

To be sure, young people today aren’t citing gay marriage as their top issue at the voting booth. According to research conducted by CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), only 3.8 percent of young voters named gay rights as their top issue in the 2012 presidential election. The vast majority of voters, both young and old, cited the economy and jobs as being most important to them.

But could simply participating in this historic moment along with the rest of the 81 percent in my generation be enough to ignite further participation down the road? We are given the opportunity to see political engagement at its best, and maybe the consequences will be lasting.

CIRCLE Director Peter Levine thinks there is indeed a chance gay rights could be that gateway issue. “While there isn’t clear research that political organizing leads to more political organizing, the evidence from the voting world is pretty suggestive,” he said. “We know once you get people voting, it often leads to more voting.”

Will my generation move from gay rights to the environment or some other big issue? Time will tell. For now, I will enjoy this warm moment in history, as youth across the United States take part in the political process that will inevitably, and assuredly, give the gay community the rights they so very much deserve. And hopefully, this unique issue, which touched so many of us personally, will keep many more of us involved in the future.

#PostModernProblems

Originally published 10/05/12 in The Forward.

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter shook up the national feminist conversation with her provocative Atlantic piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Writing about the challenges she faces balancing her role as a mother and a professional, she argued that systemic changes must be made in both the workplace and society for women to finally achieve equality with men. Her piece sparked a wide debate, naturally, and as I begin my junior year of college at Johns Hopkins, I can’t help but ask myself, where do I fall in all of this? What choices do I face as a 20-year-old Jewish American female student?

In one of my sociology classes this semester, we began to analyze the concept of “family through a post-modern perspective.” As a history and sociology major, I have encountered post-modernism many times, yet this was the first time that the theory struck an incredibly personal note.

Post-Modern theorists embrace the notion that the world has changed so much from previous eras, that today individuals must make choices about virtually all aspects of their lives. Before, choices were limited and one’s life was generally pre-determined from history, tradition and custom. Now, when it comes to questions of self-identity, we increasingly rely upon our own construction of reality to dictate who we are. These choices range from big life decisions about relationships, religion and careers to the most trivial questions — what should I tweet? What should my profile picture be?

In all of my years of schooling, and now in my time at college, I have been taught to work hard for success, to learn avidly, and to not settle for anything less than what I’m capable of achieving. I have been raised to respect those who use their talents to improve the world.

And like Ms. Slaughter, I also recognize the significance of where I stand in this moment of women’s history. First wave, second wave and third wave feminists have all fought for girls like me to vote, to be able to attend institutions like Johns Hopkins (a school without women until 1970), and then upon graduation, to compete in the job market with men. Even in 2009 with the signing of the Lily-Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a law that helps women fight against gender-pay discrimination, I am reminded that women out there are continually making political sacrifices so that I can do more and be more than they once had the opportunity to be at my age.

I was also raised in the American Jewish community. I have been to Holocaust memorials in America, Israel and Germany. I write this piece cognizant of the fact that many of the Jewish people who lost their lives never even imagined there could be a world where they could live as freely and confidently as I do today.

The struggle to make sense of what I want to do in the future comes in part from knowing that these different identities are not always so compatible. It does not escape me that “continuity” is an oft-stressed priority of the Jewish community, including “marrying Jewish” or at the very least, “raising your kids Jewish.” And as Ms. Slaughter recognized, creating and raising a family often can come at the expense of an ambitious adult career.

Will I marry Jewish? I don’t know. Do I want to eventually start a family? Yes. Do I want to continue to help the feminist cause? Yes. Do I want to chase my professional dreams? Yes. Do I want the existence of the Jewish people to continue? Yes. But I have not figured out what all of this means for me personally.

In many ways, I know that these challenges are a blessing, a gift and a privilege. This confusion is something many have only wished to have. But I think it is important for people to try to understand how many girls my age are feeling — to realize that simply because we understand that having choices is a “gift” does not really make it easier or less confusing.

Many girls today are unsure about which path to take, nervous to let people down, and anxious about living up to our own potential because of the costs our dreams might have on our future families. We are nervous to not live up to our own potential.

Every day I continue to explore my options and choices. But often the process can seem all too intimidating. And when it does, I retreat to my safe, imaginary realities of fiction, Netflix and Facebook — avenues where the cost of a “wrong choice” comes with far less significant consequences to my future.

#PostModernProblems

Birthright’s Triumphs and Flaws

Op-ed published originally in JTA.
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WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (JTA) – After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.

Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.

I realize, though, that the Birthright model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in Diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it is rather easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more upon fostering a general sense of connection. This dynamic often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.

Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip is targeting a broad-based group of Jewish people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.

But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues while all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”

We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, with the food and with the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.

A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was telling some people about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations that face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only wasn’t I able to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about with regards to “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.

In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable by the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.

On the J Street U trip we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of Jews of the Diaspora. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.

J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.

If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would necessarily have all the answers. But I am positioned in a place where I am ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.

I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.