Zionist enterprise

Israel on Campus Coalition holds second annual pro-Israel student conference

About 400 students from around the U.S. attended the event — the largest such gathering this year — which had a theme of “Many Voices, One Vision”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speaking before 400 college students at the Israel on Campus Coalition’s second annual leadership summit this week in Washington, D.C., Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog issued an urgent plea for more foot soldiers in the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism on college campuses. 

“My feeling is that we need many more people of the young generation to be engaged, to engage, to feel that Israel is part of their identity and we are working; we have some programs in the embassy that we try to advance in this respect. I would like to see many more delegations of young people go to Israel. I would like to see more youth exchange programs, and I think it is up to us to come up with new programs for young people to engage, new definitions or up-to-date definitions of what we stand for, of Zionism.”

“We tend to engage with the traditional leadership and establishment and so on,” Herzog continued. “I strongly believe that we need to do more with the young generation. It’s great to see all of you engaged and fighting for Israel in campuses and I want to thank you for that, but I think we need many more. I’m Israel’s ambassador to the United States. All of you are ambassadors and we need many more.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Carly Spandorfer, a rising junior studying psychology at University of Pennsylvania, who told eJewishPhilanthropy that she hoped more of her Jewish peers would get involved in pro-Israel politics. “It’s almost like they wouldn’t come to a conference like this because they don’t necessarily care. To a lot of my friends, Israel isn’t something that matters until they need to care.”

The three-day conference, held at the Capital Hilton, was the largest pro-Israel student conference held this year and it brought together an array of political speakers from across the spectrum including former Trump White House advisor Jason Greenblatt, a Republican; Maryland Del. Joe Vogel, a Democrat who is running for a House seat; Arizona state Rep. Alma Hernandez, a Democrat; and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog. 

The National Leadership Summit (NLS) theme was “Many Voices, One Vision.” 

“You are the future and I think we have to invest in the future,” Herzog said during a Monday evening plenary titled “Fireside Chat with Ambassador Herzog.” 

Herzog addressed the ongoing turmoil in Israel surrounding the planned judicial reform. 

“As you know, we’ve had a political crisis in Israel… But let me take a step back and provide some perspective or background on what’s happening currently in Israel and where I think we are headed… The fact that you see so many people going out to demonstrate with Israeli flags, mostly peaceful, is a tribute to the strength of our democracy,” he said. 

“I don’t know what would be the ultimate outcome, but I, for one, strongly believe that this is not a debate between democracy and dictatorship. As our president [his brother, Isaac Herzog] said recently in his speech to [a joint session of U.S. Congress]: Democracy is in the DNA of Israel’ society. Israelis will never accept dictatorship, so to speak,” Herzog added.

The convening was held against a backdrop of rising antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses, with a report published earlier this year from the Anti-Defamation League finding that anti-Jewish occurrences on campuses increased by 41% in 2022.

Alexandra Ahdoot, a rising junior at Duke University studying public policy and economics, told eJP that she attended the summit because it’s important for her to be a voice for Israel on campus. 

“Growing up in Great Neck [N.Y.] was one of the greatest blessings of my life because I was fortunate to be surrounded by such a strong and supportive Persian Jewish community,” Ahdoot said. “But I always knew I grew up in a bubble and that once I went to college, the situation would be different and I wouldn’t be surrounded by so many Zionists like myself.”

Ahdoot said a particular incident at Duke during her freshman year that ultimately spurred her to become involved with ICC: When she and a friend decided to start a chapter of Students Supporting Israel, a student-led pro-Israel advocacy group, on Duke’s campus. They applied to become a club through the student government and were initially accepted, but had their approval revoked after a student accused the university of supporting “settler colonialism,” Ahdoot said.

She said the situation turned into a months-long battle before the club was re-approved. “But I would do it all over again because not only did it shed light on antisemitism and Israel bias at Duke but it highlighted that this stuff can arise anywhere,” she said.

Ahdoot noted that ICC was one of the organizations “standing strongly by my side during all of the controversy.” 

“Automatically I knew this was an incredible organization and I felt it important to come here where they are bringing together students of all different backgrounds and ethnicities in a way that still is united because everyone has some reason for loving Israel,” she said. 

Last year, Ahdoot was selected to participate on a 10-day trip to Israel and the United Arab Emirates to learn about the Abraham Accords through ICC’s Geller International Fellowship, an elite cohort experience for 40 select undergraduate college students from across the U.S. “This is an incredible reunion with my Geller Fellowship cohort,” she said. 

Ahdoot, who attended NLS for the first time, said a panel that stood out to her was “Defending Dignity: Empowering Students through Civil Rights Law on U.S. Campuses.” The civil rights on campus panel featured StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism Director Carly Gammill; Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law; Mark Rotenberg, vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs at Hillel International; and Ben Ryberg, COO and director of research at The Lawfare Project.

“It was super interesting to hear about defending civil rights on campus from a Jewish and pro-Israel perspective,” Ahdoot said. 

Jacob Baime, ICC CEO, outlined the conference’s goals in a discussion with eJP.

“There are tangible, specific goals we are trying to achieve with the conference,” he said. “We want students to leave feeling equipped to elect pro-Israel student government officials, to build strong and diverse coalitions on campuses and to respond effectively to anti-Israel activity.” 

“The bigger picture is about a network,” Baime continued. “If you are a student who is at the front lines of these fights that anti-Israel activists are pitching on campus, it can feel isolating. It’s powerful for pro-Israel students to feel they are part of a national network.” 

Spandorfer said a standout panel was Adopting the Blue Square Campaign, led by Foundation to Combat Antisemitism Senior Advisor Matthew Berger.

“It’s so easy to implement putting the blue square into campus,” she said. “It’s nice to have a symbol. By wearing the blue square pin you can stand out against hate the way other groups do with symbols such as the rainbow flag for LGBTQ equality.” 

Spandorfer noted appreciation for ICC bringing in students and speakers of various backgrounds. “It’s so interesting to me to hear why non-Jewish people feel like they should care about Israel,” she said. 

“I definitely plan on doing pro-Israel work after college,” Spandorfer continued. “Not necessarily as my career but I want to volunteer at pro-Israel events and keep connecting.”