Zionism: it’s time for students to speak up

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Zionism: it’s time for students to speak up

There is a different way of being a supporter of Israel emerging on campus, says third-year Cambridge University student Joel Fenster.

When I was younger, being a Zionist was simple. I knew when to sing the Hatikvah and what to say: Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, there are countless Islamic countries and only one Jewish state, the land was baron before 1948, etc, etc.

I now know of course that the situation is far more complex than my earlier education suggested.

Looking back I realise that being a democracy means holding oneself to a higher standard, that Palestinian identity goes beyond religion, and that 1948 was not as simple as some versions of history suggest.

Student Joel Fenster

In short, I learnt the complexity of the Middle East.

Our generation may well be the first to have such powerful resources for understanding available to us, with the internet providing a broader level of knowledge than our parents could even contemplate.

Given this capacity to comprehend, and given the importance of the next generation of Anglo-Jewry’s leaders, why do students stay relatively silent when it comes to shaping our community’s Zionism? All too often we act as passive consumers rather than the activists that students once were.

It is nothing new to say that students yearn to be taken seriously. We can look at two sides of a coin, and we can handle nuanced issues in our studies, so our Zionism should be handled with the same vigour.

Our personal relationship to Israel is complex, and rightly so. The community has woken up to this. In most quarters there is a desire – a desperation even – to engage the community in a real dialogue.

In past years, organisations like Yachad have played a major role in this process, helping many mainstream Jews to engage with Israel, rather than feeling alienated by the ‘party line.’

The next challenge is to achieve the same level of success at universities.

Although most students I speak to believe in the two-state solution and the steps needed to achieve this goal, the loudest voices are still those that do not promote this agenda. That needs to change.

An upcoming student conference on 11 September could help. It aims to open up the dialogue, and look at how the majority of students can feel comfortable talking about Israel on campus. Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland and US State Department representative Jonathan Peccia will be there to look at how best to promote a two-state solution and human rights in Israel.

Providing a space for those who support the view that a two-state solution is a necessity for Israel’s future is easier said than done. But thankfully, mercifully, this is no longer a controversial statement in Anglo-Jewry.

But without that voice on campus, students will feel disenfranchised, leading to a community that is apathetic to Israel in ten years’ time.

The Yachad conference is about providing an alternative, of connecting to Israel that resonates with our modern lives, and of leveraging the power of students on campus. Sign up at www.yachad.org.uk

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