AIPAC 2012: Student Leaders Speak
Looking for the facts-at the recent 2012 AIPAC Conference in Washington D.C., the pursuit of intellectual honesty was the reoccurring theme that characterized my many and diverse interviews with students from across the country. I entered the conference, along with 2,000 other student leaders and activists, asking why: why did students, from incredibly varying backgrounds, choose to attend?
"As student body president of nearly 18,500 undergraduate and graduate students, it is my responsibility to be knowledgeable about the all the students I represent," explained Austin Graham, a composed senior from New Mexico State University. "That means knowing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective, and that means knowing about the conflict from Israel's perspective. I am here to learn. I'm here because it my responsibility to educate myself from every angle."
Yevin Roth, another student body president, a Korean-American senior studying Public Health at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was also attending the conference to broaden his understanding of the Middle-Eastern controversy. Roth did not fail to mention the importance of taking everything he heard at a conference with "a grain of salt."
"Yes, salt is the most important spice," he laughed bemusedly, a note of skepticism in his tone. "Nationalism and truth have always been difficult to reconcile. But, at the end of the day, truth must win out."
Roth's comment alluded to a covert tension that exists between advocating for the State of Israel, and agreeing with all of Israel's policies. "One of the things I struggle with about AIPAC," confessed Danielle Meidan, a dual American/Israeli citizen who is a freshman at University of California, Santa Cruz, "is their presentation of Israel as a country without faults. We need to be able to learn about Israel's faults and missteps so that we can understand, acknowledge, and refute illegitimateclaims about Israel." A freshman, Meidan has already become highly involved in the pro-Israel activism on campus. "I face a lot of antagonism," she said, "but I'm prepared to stand up and fight for the country that's my home."
Hailing from a Modern-Orthodox perspective, Chesky Kopel, a third year student at Yeshiva, was not hesitant to express certain apparent "inconsistencies" between deed and creed gleaned from Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday night.
"I couldn't help but question his unequivocal statement, 'I will never gamble on the security of the State of Israel,'" Kopel expressed shortly after the speech, "Just five months ago, this same man released 1,027 prisoners who had been convicted on terrorist charges. To declare war on Iran is a gamble of the security of the state. Not to declare war is also a gamble on the security of the state. This issue is a complicated one, and the prime minister's display of overconfidence is frankly disconcerting."
Simplicity is not something students are prepared to stomach easily-not students from fairly homogenous Yeshiva, and not students from some of the most diverse, liberal college campuses in the States.
Sitara Nayuda, UC Irvine's former student body president, spoke candidly about the anti-Israel sentiment on campus, and the outstanding pro-Israel student efforts in response.
"Yes, we have an extremely diverse student population, and students are not hesitant to speak out against Israel. But we have some of the most active, dynamic pro-Israel action taking place on campus as well," stated Nayuda. "I'm here to learn and to deepen my understanding of both sides of the issue."
Being exposed to both sides of the issue is no novelty to students from University of Pennsylvania. Following on the heals of the recent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference that took place on campus, the large delegation of students from Penn were not strangers to adversity. "On campus, we don't mix friends and politics," explained Joshua Spector, deputy committee leader for PIPAC (Penn Israel Public Action Committee). "We are friends with the students from Penn for Palestine. But, when it comes down to representing Israel, being an effective advocate means knowing the facts. Advocating for Israel doesn't mean claiming Israel is perfect-it means supporting Israel's essential right to exist and right to defend itself. Like President Obama said in his speech, 'On the big things, we agree.'"
The tangible drive for honesty and determination to confront complexity was evident from student responses. But the quest for intellectual honesty did not divorce raw emotion from the issue.
"I'm looking for answers because I care," said Laina Pauker, first year student at Clark University, a small liberal arts college in Worchester, Massachusetts that had no pro-Israel group on campus until Laina and three other students decided it was an imperative. "When I arrived on the campus this year, 'free Palestine' was chalked all over place. Students thought being 'liberal' was equated with hating Israel. And, among other students, there was just a lot of ignorance. I felt it my responsibility to change that."
One pro-Israel student group (CHAI: Clarkies Helping and Advocating for Israel) and several successful events later, sentiments on campus have already started to change.
"I'm not looking for conflict. All I'm looking for is peace. Peace requires discussion. And any real discussion requires two knowledgeable parties, prepared to talk and ready to listen."
Words from a 20-year-old: perhaps one day the world will take heed.
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