Illustration by Rivka Cohen
The end of the year marks an unexpected beginning for our Jewish community: a new pro-Israel group. Students Supporting Israel has been growing internationally since 2012, recently embarking on a chapter here at UCLA. The chapter’s co-founders Akiva Nemetsky and Liat Menna, along with scribe Liat Bainvoll, shared their opinions and plans for a new kind of Israel advocacy.
Rivka Cohen: Why now?
Akiva Nemetsky: Last quarter I had gone to AIPAC and that was very inspirational. Menna and I had a certain vision of how we wanted Israel advocacy to be on campus and we felt that with the backbone of SSI, we’d be able to streamline our vision into a reality.
Liat Bainvoll: I came from a Jewish school, so being pro-Israel was never a question. I knew this would be a big campus with a lot of tension. I heard about the apartheid wall, and I was hoping to spread the pro–Israel message along it and be active.
RC: When you first came to campus, I’m assuming you all expected to be part of a Jewish and pro-Israel community. What were the feelings that led you to think “there’s not a place for me, I need to create it”?
AN: During my first months on campus, I didn’t see anyone tabling for Israel on Bruinwalk. And we felt that while it’s obviously good to engage people of your kind, it’s equally, if not more, effective to engage people who don’t even know anything about Israel. If we can be the first ones to introduce them to it and shine a positive light, then I think that will affect how they will continue through.
LB: What really bothered me was when SJP put up their apartheid wall. I saw people who didn’t know anything about the conflict reading such one-sided statements, and there was nothing else there to educate them on the conflict.
Liat Menna: I originally chose to go to UCLA because I thought it was the school with the largest Jewish and pro-Israel community. Once I got to campus, I realized it was not what I expected: Israel was mentioned if there was something about Palestine, but it was never about Israeli or Jewish pride.
RC: Tell me about the mission of SSI.
AN: As an organization, we seek to be extremely visible. We’re always trying to think of ways for people to know who we are. This month we went out handing candy with Israel facts on Bruinwalk, somewhere between 250 to 300 candies. That’s already 300 students we’ve engaged about the State of Israel. I think just when people see you’re willing to advocate for Israel, that you’re proud of it, you sort of chip away at the anti-Semitism sentiment, slowly.
RC: What type of people are you looking to educate: those with a blank slate or people who already have conflicting opinions on Israel?
LB: The most realistic approach is people who don’t know much. If somebody already made up his or her mind, it’s going to be so much harder to change it than someone who is not leaning to one side or the other. The reason we want to go out of our way to be seen and heard on campus where other groups don’t is because we want to be the first group they find, before they hear what SJP has to say.
RC: Are you situated in any place of the political spectrum?
AN: I happen to be much more to the right. As an organization, however, we are open to everybody and don’t have any political association.
LB: We don’t want to be against any group. We’re all pro-Israel in a sense; we all have the same goal. Our goal is to not only reach out to Jews but also to inform the rest of the populous and make talking about Israel not so taboo on campus. It’s very polarized. From what I heard, the only thing that comes out of USAC in relation to Israel is whether you are in favor of BDS or against it. I feel like the student’s government and school is divided within itself about this issue specifically. So one of our goals is to host events and to put ourselves out there with the intention to change the view of Israel on campus.
RC: What events do you plan on having that would be different from other groups?
AN: Primarily, we’re going to have fourdifferent categories of events. We’re going to engage on Bruinwalk, or similar to that, at least every other week. We’re also going to be hosting information session events. We’re going to be bringing in speakers. And lastly, more hands-on and fun events will be geared towards Israeli culture. By having this spectrum of events we can engage all different types of people: the intellectual characters, the more artistically-based, and people who themselves want to go out and engage.
RC: For someone unfamiliar with Israel, what type of message do you hope to pass on?
AN: Unfortunately, the first thing you hear about Israel advocacy on campus is BDS. That’s unfortunate because people feel that when you want to support the State of Israel you have to constantly and incessantly defend it. That takes a lot out of you. It’s your homeland and you have to constantly defend it. We want to steer the conversation away from that and speak on the great things about Israel — in that way, have Israel speak for itself.
RC: How do you plan to tackle anti-Semitism on campus?
AN: Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are very connected. Oftentimes, if not all the time, anti-Zionism is just the façade for anti-Semitism. I believe that by promoting pro-Israel sentiment on campus, you’re simultaneously condemning anti-Semitism, because they are really one and the same.
RC: Why do you think supporters feel obligated to engage in a diplomatic war before celebrating Israel?
AN: People think that in order to legitimize their pro-Israel stance, they have to first show that they recognize all the faults. But in order to get people to believe you and follow you, you have to speak with conviction. People who are anti-Israel are going to say their piece regardless.
LM: There’s a difference between being critical and being defensive. Throughout history, we have defended ourselves but were never defensive. Today we’re defensive, and that’s not a way to be proud. As a result we’re being pushed around and feeling uncomfortable to walk around as Jewish and/or Israeli students. I fear very much that what’s happening in Europe is coming here. I feel people losing their sense of pride and sense of identity and sense of place in America. We need to resituate ourselves and think about the future. This is where the next 100 years are going to come from. This is our opportunity to change reality and save the Diaspora from further assimilation.
RC: How much of that do you think has to do with guilt?
LM: We can be critical, and on a human level there are victims on both sides. But I am not willing to look at the other side and elevate it before I look at my own. If you look at Israel’s history, there is far more positive than there is negative. But the way the negative is weighted, it’s as if the successes don’t matter, and that’s the problem. If you’re going to be critical, at the very least give it equal weight.
LB: Israel is held to such a high standard that guilt is sort of pushed on Jews and Israelis in a way that no other people are.
RC: Why do you think Israel is held to such high standards?
LM: I think Israel already holds itself as it is to high standards — it is constantly progressing and modernizing and making changes. It’s never a stagnant state. But other countries hold Israel to impractical standards that make it impossible for Israel to thrive. The fact that they constantly have to deal with threats from the external world make the standards for Israeli citizens lower. It’s ruining Israel from the outside-in because they have to constantly prove themselves to the rest of the world.
RC: Do you plan on bringing together the Jewish community with other communities on campus?
LM: Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, who was a guest at our recent event “Our Soldiers Speak,” said: “When I look at the Jewish people I see them as family. Everyone else is my friend.” We really need to make an effort with our friends. I think we’ve polarized ourselves from the community at UCLA by victimizing ourselves.
RC: UCLA marks SSI’s 30th chapter since its establishment only three years ago. How do you see yourselves growing as an organization?
LM: We now have a chapter in Canada and in England. We’re becoming an international movement, which I think is very powerful, especially when it’s about an international cause. It’s the entire Jewish population’s country and it means a lot that we have different groups from different countries coming together in an effort to further the cause of Israel. Our mission is bigger than just our community or the U.S. for that matter. It’s about the identity of Israel.
RC: How do you see your efforts affecting other campuses?
LB: The way we have so much support for and from other groups allows us to reach a larger network of people to spread our ideas more easily.
LM: For example, a few days ago a university in Texas passed a pro-Israel resolution and the community surrounding it was very proud. That positive energy influences not only students but also the community, and raises awareness on the successes of Israel.
AN: In terms of other campuses, we are in a unique position. This past quarter, UCLA made national headlines with anti-Semitism on campus. We can turn this into an opportunity to show that if we are successful in a school people perceive as radicalized and anti-Semitic, people will think that on their campuses, success is definitely possible.
RC: How can your efforts ultimately help Israel?
AN: By showing Israel and its people that there is a large group in America that supports them and recognizes their efforts. That people who never met them stand in solidarity with them. This can give them hope to fortify their already formed beliefs.
LM: Once we reclaim our strength in the states we can directly help Israel. But right now we need to work on how we shape our relationship with Israel. As it is now, the way we perceive and try to fix its problems is not progressive at all.
RC: If this Ha’Am issue was put in a time capsule for Jewish students in our age today, having the conversations we have today, what would you want to tell them?
LM: It’s time to reclaim our narrative and to never lose sight of who we are. Stay convicted, with your head held high and proud. Don’t let other people change your identity.
All three students are freshman, admirably choosing to take upon themselves this mission of redefining what it means to be pro-Israel. In many ways, their appearance on campus contributed the final touches to the metaphoric parallelism between the Israeli population and our Jewish community. Diverse voices, some louder than others but each deeply convicted in their way of approaching internal and external politics… Sitting around the same dinner table.
I remain skeptical, until proven otherwise, of the notion that working independently can form a united front. Nonetheless, I endorse their planned efforts to bring a greater awareness to, and appreciation for, our beloved country, and wish for them the best of luck and my personal support in their future endeavors.