For students who share my passion for Israel, the George Washington University used to be a polarized environment of conflicting student groups. There were political Israel-focused groups that leaned left, there were those that leaned right, and there were organizations that focused on Israel’s culture or on Jewish religious identity. None of these groups seemed to cooperate with one another, and none of them inspired me — a secular, Israeli, culturally affiliated Jew, to engage.
Then, I went back to Israel. I spent the summer after my sophomore year living among an Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem while interning for the Labor party in the Knesset. My living environment and my work context seemed like opposite extremes. I was simultaneously part of two polarized groups that loved the same country but were severely opposed to each other’s views.
I came to appreciate that Israel is not a one-dimensional place to be understood through just one lens. Israel is a complicated place. And I determined to share that understanding with the George Washington University.
When I came back to campus, I joined a new program called Israel Engage Campus aimed at changing conversations about Israel. Our goal was to broaden the campus’ approach to Israel from one that relied on the lens of conflict to a more authentic representation.
The program, run by Hillel International, taught my team a structure to begin shifting the conversation on campus.
The first year we realized that we needed to reach students who were not Jewish, were not already engaged with Israel, and learned about Israel primarily from the media. We needed to become one of the sources of information for these students as they formed their perceptions about Israel.
Armed with this knowledge, we focused on students who had no prior connection to Israel or Judaism. In order to do that, we needed to help the existing Israel-related groups find enough common ground to work together in reaching those students.
Using Hillel’s framework, we spent the second year of the project facilitating communication between the polarized groups on campus. We created a Groupme page, where each organization was encouraged to share and coordinate their events. Students began collaborating with their classmates in groups with differing views.
Soon, communication became cooperation.
This spring, four Israel-related student groups cooperated to host an outdoor program called Israel Fest. The program was designed to introduce our environment to the diverse aspects of Israeli culture and society. More than 1,000 students attended, and the president of the university came to show his support. One of the highlights was a live camel named Delilah. She was a hit.
There was excitement, music and a certain spark in the air. Students were able to see Israel through a new, more nuanced framework instead of focusing only on conflict.
It was not easy. There were bumps in the road, frustration among the groups, fear of protests and university logistics to overcome. But, we were able to change the conversation about Israel from one that used to divide us to one that unites us.
Hillel gave us a place to bring together student groups with different views about Israel in order to share with our campus community the Israel we love and call home.
Aya Kantorovich graduated this spring from George Washington University.