To Help Counter Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Sentiment on Campuses, Increase Teen Trips to Israel

Lapid Mega Event, 2011; photo eJP archives
Lapid Mega Event, 2011; photo eJP archives

The Rise in Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Sentiment on Campuses Worldwide Calls for More Jewish Teens to Visit Israel in Preparation for College Onslaught

By Gideon Shavit

The Israel Experience for decades has always been about creating immersive Jewish experiences which will lead to lifelong Jewish engagement. Successful trips create motivation among participants to engage in Israel advocacy upon their return to their home communities.

Sadly, there is now a new and compelling reason for the Israel Experience – to prepare the participants for their college experience in general and to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment which they are most likely to face at college.

It’s depressingly easy today to find anecdotal evidence of anti-Semitism at colleges and universities around the world. The situation has reached the dismal point where, more than half of Jewish American college students personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to a Brandeis Center and Trinity College report issued earlier this year.

As reports of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment especially directed at younger Jews continue to rise across the world, the question we must ask is: Are high school graduates at present properly prepared for the reality they will face on the college campus? What, if anything, is Israel and the organized Jewish Diaspora doing about this in order to better equip young students who enter college and find themselves suddenly on the front lines of Anti-Semitism, defending Israel?

Bringing young people to Israel – ground zero for Jewish thought, culture, and tradition – to connect with the land, its people and history, is the surest way for young Jewish students to be exposed to, learn about firsthand, and deal with Israeli politics and society in a safe and empowering environment well before their arrival on the turbulent campus. As the former CEO of one of the largest and longest running high school-age teen programs to Israel (Alexander Muss High School in Israel), and as Founder and outgoing Chairman of Lapid – the Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel – from where I stand, all the reasons that have historically made Israel Education in the Diaspora and the Israel Experience important in the past are more crucial today than ever before. In fact, the Jewish future depends on it.

In just two months’ time, approximately 60,000 Jewish freshmen will be entering North American college campuses. Sadly, the reality is that most of these new college students will be ill-equipped to deal with confronting charges of Israeli “brutality,” “colonialism” and “apartheid”, as David Bryfman and Steven M. Cohen report in a recent article in The Jewish Week, strongly putting forward “A Case For More Teen Israel Trips.”

The problem of Anti-Semitism on college campuses is of course not isolated to just the United States. Manifestations of Anti-Semitic attacks include fear of grade reprisals by instructors, swastikas painted on doors of Jewish fraternities and attacks both physical and verbal, not to mention the ever increasing pressures of the global BDS movement to campaign for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel so as to damage Israel’s economy. Just last month, a leaked Israeli government report estimated that BDS could cost Israel’s economy $1.4bn a year.

“If thousands of today’s Jewish students had experienced Israel before coming to campus, college life would be very different,” proclaim Bryfman and Cohen.

There have been many initiatives to address ways to bring more young Jews to Israel during their high school and pre-college years. One such driving force has been the work of Lapid, a coalition of about 25 international programs bringing 12,000 teens to Israel every year – without any funding from the Government of Israel (as opposed to the better known Birthright and Masa trips, both of which are heavily funded by the Government). Teen programs play a pivotal role in the preparation of Diaspora youth for college. It’s indisputable that the Israel Teen Experience is the most effective tool to provide identity forming Jewish engagement for Jewish teens. We no longer have the luxury of each organization going alone. There’s tremendous potential in working together to achieve common goals.

These efforts must be redoubled now. This is a call to action to persuade all relevant and interested organizations and institutions – the Israel Government, The Jewish Agency, the Federations, JCC’s and others, including donors, to provide the tools and resources to bring thousands of teens to Israel before they go off to colleges and universities around the world.

This must be a concerted effort on the part of all concerned partners; the organizations that currently provide these trips that have come together under the umbrella of Lapid must be joined by major Jewish organizations, primarily Hillel, AIPAC and others who should continue working with these students when they get to the campus.

The current trend among Jewish adolescents is to wait until after high school for their first Israel encounter. This is when more programs are subsidized, and therefore cheaper for parents to send their children. This is unfortunate as by skipping the most formative years in teens’ lives, we are skipping a generation and losing a vital connection with thousands of Jewish teens across the world.

If high school Israel programs can be made more accessible, i.e. more affordable, through appropriate funding, and if we can instill a deep connection to Israel in our youth as part and parcel of an education framework earlier on, the returns could be staggering. Lapid is the answer to this.