bView brings students to campus from across BostonPublished: February 1, 2013
More than 250 students representing 17 different universities gathered in Levin Ballroom last Sunday for the first annual Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World (bVIEW) conference to have a serious, thought-provoking discussion about Israel and its future, which President Fred Lawrence said would, “move the conversation forward in a productive manner.”
The conference was separated into two different parts with two centers of focus: the first discussed Israel-related culture on American college campuses and the second looked ahead to Israel’s future, allowing students to have conversations about solutions and steps to take beyond bVIEW’s conference.
The conference was led by a pluralistic group of students: Israeli students such as Chen Arad ’15 and Natan Auddenheimer ’15, who came to Brandeis after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and Sarah Geller ’13, who found herself challenged by the question of how to relate to Israel in a changing world and “how to depolarize the dialogue” after studying abroad in Lebanon.
Arad summarized the mission of the conference: “We need to ask whether our actions make the situation better, not worse. The conversation needs to be depolarized, and the discourse needs to bring us forward,” he said.
The conference featured a combination of keynote speakers, panels and roundtable discussions, all of which were student-led. Geller, Co-Founder and Logistics Director for bVIEW, described the conference as, “for the students, by the students.” Geller used the word “movement” to describe the bVIEW conference; she personally aspired to have the conference as the first step in engaging students toward a more serious and civil conversation about Israel’s future.
Geller wasn’t alone in her vision. She was joined by 15 other students on the bVIEW team who believe in having conversations about their hopes for Israel’s future.
Aaron David Miller, the first keynote speaker and an advisor to six U.S. Secretaries of State, spoke about the political challenges America faces in supporting Israel today. “Supporting Israel is not a cost-free enterprise,” Miller said.
Still, he attempted to disprove some of the common public opinions about President Obama, specifically the assumption that he does not act with Israel’s best interests at heart. “Barack Obama is not an enemy of the State of Israel,” Miller said. “He also is not a member of the Zionist Organization of America … He did not grow up with the images of Israelis as cowboys and Palestinians as Indians.”
Other speakers covered a diverse range of topics relating to contemporary life in Israel. Bambi Sheleg, an Israeli journalist and founder of Eretz Acheret, a newsletter about current Israeli society, spoke about the relations between Israelis and Diaspora Jews and their diverse views on social issues.
Sheleg also criticized the media’s coverage of Israel for being “too focused on extreme ideas and ratings … [Israel is] a society at the moment of maturity. We have to deal with our problems. To deal with our problems is to change … Israel cannot be a coalition of fantasies.”
Breakout sessions led by Brandeis professors also gave participants the chance to learn about specific aspects of life in Israel today. Professor Ilan Troen (NEJS), head of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, facilitated a discussion, “Divergent Jewish Cultures,” on the cultural differences between Israelis and Jews in other Western nations. Professor Yehudah Mirsky (NEJS) led a “Guide for the Perplexed” discussion of the recent Israeli elections, and gave participants the chance to run their own mock political campaign or act out their own governing body.
bVIEW’s conference was not sponsored by other campus clubs, although they did collaborate with some of the pro-Israel clubs including J-Street U and BIPAC.
“What sets bVIEW apart is that we aren’t trying to promote a certain agenda. We are simply trying to say that there are a lot of people that care about Israel but need to have more innovative discussions,” Chen Arad ’15 co-founder and media director of bVIEW said.
Participants from other campuses also learned from the ideas of the conference. Becky Santora, a sophomore at Barnard, hopes to implement bVIEW-style programming on her campus. Panelist Lex Rofes, a Brown University senior who spoke about the current state of Israel discourse on college campuses, said that the conference “gives me a clearer view of how the discussion is different from one campus to another, which is something we need to know so we can change it.”
“We got in touch with different foundations and pitched our idea about having a better discussion regarding Israel. Many people liked it and that’s where our donations came from,” Arad said.
But Arad said that what worked particularly well in bVIEW’s conference was that they brought together a diverse group of opinions that made students think about conversations in a different way. Instead of attending an event sponsored by a particular club, this conference was simply meant for students to engage in a holistic discussion about Israel’s future.
“In the past, I’ve been to events where there is a shouting match. That usually deters people from coming to events; we didn’t want that,” Arad said.
Arad spoke of the positive feedback he got from one of their events last semester. In an event during Israel Peace Week, Arad and his team brought together a few different scholars with varying opinions about Israel. Instead of asking them to discuss their opinions on the current state, he asked them to share what they believe the future of Israel should look like. Surprisingly, he said, their answers were practically the same.
“The future-oriented discussion can be used as a good platform,” Arad said. “It is this kind of conversation that will allow us to be successful in creating a better future for Israel and its people.”
The second keynote speaker, Sheleg, discussed the direction in which she sees the Israeli culture moving. Sheleg spoke of the media and its importance in shaping an outsider’s perspective on Israeli society.
“We know when the media is saying the right thing,” Sheleg said. “In the news, if you say something extreme, you become famous for it. But if you say something moderate, you’re boring.”
Sheleg also spoke about the role of Zionism in shaping a new identity for Israel. Her belief is that Zionism started from newspapers, grew into literature and philosophy and has now shifted toward movements and political parties.
“The content of Jewish identity is different in the most radical ways: from the beginning of time, before the Holocaust and before the state,” Sheleg said. “We used to be a different people.”
The conference concluded with two students, Eli Phillip ’15 and Eva Gurevich (GRAD), sharing their hopes for Israel’s future to a panel of guests, including the Consul General of Israel to New England, Shai Bazak.
Phillip, who grew up in Israel, moved to the United States with his family for a better life and education. Attending a Jewish day school, he spoke about the absence of criticism for Israel, and that Zionism to his peers meant nothing but absolute support for Israel. Phillip believes that in order for Israel to be a more just society, it must accept a painful partition.
Gurevich spoke about the possible solutions for Israel, particularly her suggestion of a confederate state in which there are two states with permanent boundaries and independent governments.
The point of this concluding part of the conference was to have two students present their ideas of a better future for Israel. Bazak praised Phillip and Gurevich for their ideas and applauded the rest of the student body attending the conference. He spoke of the great strides Israel has made in its short time of existence, in the doctors, soldiers, engineers and much more.
“Whatever your political opinion is, as long as you care about Israel, you deserve all the credit, blessing and my salute to you,” Bazak said.