Don’t Discount Us ….. How Hillel Ontario Mobilized Thousands of Students in 48 hours to Combat BDS
By Jaime Walman
We hear it all the time; our community bemoans the Millennial generation, painting them with a broad brush stroke of laziness, entitlement and an addiction to technology surpassed only by their obsession with social media.
But last week, Hillel Ontario, working in partnership with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), inspired this all-too-often misrepresented generation to stand up and be a driving force in making provincial history. On December 1st, at Queen’s Park, the Ontario Legislature voted to pass a motion that affirms our government’s stance “against any position or movement that promotes or encourages any form of hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance in any way.” Furthermore, the motion “rejects the differential treatment of Israel, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”
The key to getting this motion passed? Ensuring that as many of the 107 Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs) as possible from across the province showed up at Queen’s Park to vote. In 48 hours of campaigning, there were over 13,000 interactions through phone calls, social media and emails to persuade local MPPs to vote. At least 50% of those came from Hillel students. And outside of Toronto, the only places where there were significant numbers of interactions with MPPs? In towns where there were university students.
So, how did we do it? With four key insights into mobilizing this generation to take action.
Rent–A–Crowd. All Hillel professionals recognize the following phone call from any Jewish organization in their local community: “We are doing an event for [INSERT ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING]. The students would “love” it! Can you help us get them there?” Too often, communal organizations concern themselves with optics; they think it “looks good” to “have young people” in the room. Our students are pressured to attend trainings, programs or events planned for them without any actual student input. They know they are there for show, not for any tangible impact or benefit.
But you strike gold when you ask the students to get involved in something they actually care about and where they can make a meaningful impact. Hillel mobilized thousands of students across nine universities over the course of two days, because the students understood that they were instrumental to this motion’s success. At many universities in Ontario, there are more Jewish students on campus than there are Jews living in the surrounding local communities. Engaging the students in meaningful advocacy, especially when they believe their activism can effect real change, is exciting, purposeful and contagious.
Self–Interest. At the end of the day, I believe that everything we do is motivated, on some level, by a modicum of self-interest. While it’s not a popular opinion among altruists, it has proven to be true time and time again. This isn’t to say that students aren’t interested in advocating and standing up for all kinds of injustices that don’t directly impact them; only that the volume and mass mobilization over a very short period of time is easier when you tap into self-interest.
This motion was not campus-specific, but it is well known that students feel the brunt of the BDS movement. The majority of our community reads about BDS in the news and is sickened by its insidious threat to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, but our students actually confront it on a regular basis. On some campuses, even daily. The students were inspired to act because they understood that this motion was about them and winning would have a direct impact on their lives on campus.
The Right Tools. These Millenials are busy! Even without considering the bifurcation of their attention by the thousands of multi-media messages they consume daily, we know that without giving them the right tools, nothing will happen. And what do we mean by that? Sophisticated websites, sleek and efficient online forms, bold social media assets and strategies that utilize all of these tools in a smart way. No one wants to spend their time with clunky online systems, poorly designed sites or outdated assets. CIJA provided an online system to email the MPPs that was quick, easy, and accessible from any device. Hillel created eye-catching social media assets to encourage sharing and implemented a nomination/tagging strategy for further reach (think Ice Bucket Challenge). Make it easy, fun and have the right tools available.
Making the Ordinary Extraordinary. People are creatures of habit. We love our routines. It’s very hard to convince anyone to deviate from these routines. But find a way to subvert those everyday behaviors into positive action? That’s when you achieve real success.
Hillel is part of the routine of many Jewish university students. The Hillel professionals are a consistent presence in their lives. Jewish students hang out at the Hillel house between classes, come for the weekly bagel lunch, or have a regular student Executive meeting. Hillel events and programs are on their calendars and part of the rhythm of their lives. Instead of trying to create something new, in a very short window of time, all we did was integrate this campaign into what was already happening.
McMaster Hillel had laptops and iPads ready to go for email submissions and social shares during their Bagel Lunch. York Hillel had a Chanukah Photo Booth in the center of campus and everyone who took a photo filled out a contact form for their MPP. Leadership students at Queen’s, who were already meeting with other student groups on campus, engaged non-Jewish students in making calls to support this motion. Leveraging relationships and the infrastructure that already exists will take you further, faster towards your goal.
Hillel Ontario is so proud of our entire community’s efforts in making history last week. But we are especially proud of the students’ crucial role in our collective success. And as the famous Jewish saying goes, “Know before whom you stand”… if you want them to stand with you.
Jaime Walman is SVP Marketing and Development at Hillel Ontario.