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U-M Hillel’s Israel Cohort keeps Israel a daily priority. 

By Tilly Shames

This fall, the student leaders of the University of Michigan Hillel’s Israel Cohort developed a mission statement that presented who they are and what they want to achieve as Israel leadership on campus:

The Israel Cohort is an umbrella collaboration of student groups from the University of Michigan that promotes student support for and engagement with Israel. We encourage and nurture diverse ways for students to share their perspective and raise awareness regarding Israel on campus. With different events happening on a regular basis, the Israel Cohort strives to create an open and vibrant environment for interested students on campus. (University of Michigan Hillel 2012)

While I recognize this does not make for a witty T-shirt campaign, the Israel Cohort statement gets to the conversation, complexity and nuance behind the bumper sticker-sized slogans. Perspectives on how to support Israel are so diverse that it is a challenge for any community to adopt one slogan, one label, one mission statement or one individual approach. At Hillel, our approach has to be pluralistic to represent our diverse community and encourage all of our students to engage with Israel in a meaningful way during these formative years.

American Movement for Israel at U-M hosted College Republicans and College Democrats to debate and discuss their candidates’ views on Israel leading up to the election. Jeremy Borison of Beachwood, Ohio, and Danielle Rapp of Bloomfield Hills organized and moderated the debate.

This semester our students are embracing their Israel diversity in ways not seen in most Jewish organizations today. Our Hillel’s Israel Cohort represents a wide array of approaches and includes American Movement for Israel, WOLV-PAC (an AIPAC affiliate), JStreet U-Mich, Hasbara Fellows, Tamid Israel Investment Group, I-LEAD and MASA interns, all of which embrace the messaging of their Israel Cohort statement. These groups are supported full-time by Ilan Ofir, U-M Hillel’s Jewish Agency Israel Fellow.

When CAMERA and StandWithUs have fellows on campus, they are invited to join the cohort as well. The Israel Cohort, both as individual groups and as one common entity, offers programs that are diverse (social, cultural, political, educational and advocacy-oriented) and pluralistic. These groups support engagement with Israel, experiencing Israeli culture, learning about Israel, wrestling with the idea and ideal of Israel, and continuing a relationship with Israel. Their cohort statement cannot be explained in a few words but needs 67 words to celebrate their differences and unite them in their efforts and their common love for Israel.

Differences Of Opinion

U-M seniors Stephanie Horwitz of West Bloomfield and Ariella Yedwab of Commerce Township answer questions about Masa Israel trips on campus.

Let’s be clear: Every time this group meets it is challenged by language, assumptions and differences of opinion. The leaders disagree often and challenge one another on advocacy approaches and effective programming. They also listen and support one another, even when they disagree, by attending each other’s events and learning from the different ways Israel is presented on campus. They exhibit leadership, tolerance, understanding and respect in ways we hope will be replicated by other communities beyond our campus.

When we heard over the summer that a national conference of pro-Palestinian activists would be held on the U-M campus this fall, there was no hesitation, no intimidation and no questioning among our Israel Cohort. This conference may have taken place on our campus in early November, but it did not define our campus nor represent our community. The Israel Cohort remained dedicated to organizing a semester of programming and campaigns, as they always do, that fully represented their diverse approach to encouraging support for and engagement with Israel. They recognized as far back as August that if there would be national media attention or campus press covering this conference, students may be upset or have questions and concerns, and would look to them and their Israel leadership for direction.

They planned additional discussion groups around Shabbat dinners hosted across campus and educational sessions so that students could focus their attention, energy and efforts toward Israel. In the weeks leading up to the conference, it received no attention nationally or locally and did not impact our community. Regardless, the Israel leaders chose to continue with their discussion-based and educational programs, only adding to their semester-long initiatives.

Truth be told, what the Israel leadership did was no different than what this cohort does on a regular basis — provide a diverse array of opportunities for students to engage with and support Israel in a way that is meaningful for them. Their programming — Israel Day on the Diag, Artists 4 Israel, coffee talks, candidates’ views on Israel with the College Democrats and College Republicans, movie nights, Shabbat sponsorship, two-state semester campaign, advocacy sessions with David Project, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships — all of these events would happen regardless of what else is happening on our campus.

Any given week on our Hillel calendar, we support three to five Israel-related events — not counting the many Taglit-Birthright Israel interviews, follow-up coffee meetings and reunion events to support the 200 students we take to Israel every year.

In these times, Hillels may feel the spotlight turns to them to show a reaction by presenting a strong Israel day or week around anti-Israel events. Fortunately for our campus, the students leading the groups of the Israel Cohort and our Hillel drive forward a proactive agenda throughout the year, making every day an Israel day. When a spotlight shines on our “reaction,” it can be found in what we do on our campus every day. 

Tilly Shames is executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel.

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