In a turnout that exceeded organizers’ expectations, leaders representing 23 student organizations gathered at Rutgers University to hear politicians, an Israeli diplomat, and others tout the United States-Israel relationship.
The Jan. 31 gathering at the Douglass Student Center in New Brunswick was part of a pro-Israel effort organized by Rutgers Hillel largely in response to a flurry of pro-Palestinian activity on campus.
Two days earlier, the student center was the site of a pro-Palestinian event that drew a raucous crowd of pro-Israel demonstrators.
The leadership gathering drew 106 people, including Ruth Cole and Jacob Toporek, the president and executive director, respectively, of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.
The association was a cosponsor, along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and Scarlet Blue and White, a pro-Israel student organization.
Last month state federations pledged $10,000 to Hillel for pro-Israel activity.
Gerald Ostrov, a Middlesex federation board member, said he “felt it was very important” to support Israel advocacy at Rutgers and was “very happy to see a diverse group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students who learned a lot about the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
“This really exceeded any expectation we could have hoped for,” said Boaz Morris of Little Silver, a member of Scarlet Blue and White. “I think everybody got a lot out of it. It brought together a lot of groups who we will be speaking to in the future.”
The student groups included a number of fraternities and sororities, the Catholic Student Association, members of the governing councils of the university’s various schools and campuses, and Rutgers Shalom-Salaam, a group bringing together Jewish and Muslim students.
Also attending was Yousef Saleh, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, who said he had also gone to the pro-Palestinian program two nights earlier as an observer.
“I didn’t clap at either event,” he said. “I just sat and listened as part of my responsibilities as RUSA president.”
Although Saleh said he was a little disappointed that neither side made more of an effort to reach out to the other, he understood feelings were somewhat raw. He said he hoped to bring the two sides together in a “hummus summit” and would extend an invitation to NJ Gov. Chris Christie.
Also featured at the Jan. 31 program — the first event in a campaign planned to defend Israel in the face of pro-Palestinian activism — were U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-Dist. 6) and Leonard Lance (R-Dist. 7) (see sidebar); Shlomi Kofman, Israeli deputy consul general in New York; and Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel International.
Investment, not aid
In introducing the panel, Liran Kapoano of Somerset, a founder and president of Scarlet Blue and White, said that in 2009 New Jersey companies exported more than $772 million worth of goods and services to Israel. Since 1991 the state has generated approximately $15 billion from trade with Israel, resulting in significant job creation and tax revenue.
He added that Israel was also an international leader in developing green technology and military hardware that has saved “countless” American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and that it gave the world such high-tech advancements as the cell phone and instant messaging.
“And right here at Rutgers, partnerships with professors at the Technion, Weizmann Institute, and Hebrew University are leading to advancements in pollution detection, food preservation, and medical technologies,” said Kapoano. “So perhaps ‘aid’ isn’t the right word when referring to Israel, and instead the word we should use is investment — an investment with a tremendous return.”
Kofman, who was stationed in Thailand when it was devastated by a tsunami in December 2004, directed Israel’s humanitarian efforts in its aftermath. He and Firestone told personal stories about Israelis’ humanitarian efforts.
Kofman said Israel has a longstanding history of sharing knowledge and resources with Thailand. He recalled going to a remote school that used teaching methods developed in Israel and whose staff was trained by Israeli educators.
“You can find this tikun olam in Latin America, China, or Africa,” said Kofman. “It has no economic purpose, no hidden agenda. We just want to share our knowledge.”
Firestone recalled traveling with a human rights law group to Liberia during a period of civil unrest. While in a remote village populated by its Muslim Mandingo minority, he was sitting in a small hotel lounge when he heard Hebrew being spoken.
“I walked over to those folks at this back table and they were indeed Israelis,” he said. “They were a team of Israeli physicians from Hadassah Hospital who came over every year as part of a rotation, performing a type of eye surgery. They took people and gave them sight.”
Campaigns that seek to delegitimize Israel overlook its many humanitarian efforts as well as its thriving democratic institutions, said Firestone.
“Other human rights communities may not know this, but the students at Rutgers know Israel inspires,” he said.