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Pro-Israel groups set to counter campus apartheid claims

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An “apartheid” wall erected during the last week of February at UCLA features information critical of, if not hostile, to Israel. StandWithUs

At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off, and Jewish students and pro-Israel groups have been readying themselves to respond in force.

Unlike past years, when intense pro-Palestinian activity in the wake of Israel’s offensives in Gaza and Lebanon caught many Jewish students off guard, this year the pro-Israel community is ready with initiatives of its own.

The largest effort, Israel Peace Week, is helping to coordinate responses at 28 campuses and counting. StandWithUs, the Los-Angeles based pro-Israel group, is promoting a U.S. speaking tour by Israeli soldiers to counter claims that the Israel Defense Forces engaged in widespread misconduct during 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The David Project, the Anti-Defamation League, and CAMERA all have made material available online to counter the apartheid charge and help students disseminate pro-Israel literature.

Hasbara Fellowships, a campus Israel group affiliated with the outreach group Aish Hatorah, is promoting a film about anti-Semitism on campus through the Website Campus Intifada. And in Canada, where Israel Apartheid Week activity is often far more intense than in the United States, a pro-Israel initiative called Size Doesn’t Matter enjoyed a brief spell of notoriety when it released a sexually suggestive video that spoofed Israel’s smallness.

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In advance of Israel Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel public relations house BlueStarPR released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — anti-Israel fixation syndrome.

Continuing the below-the-belt theme, the pro-Israel PR house BlueStar released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — Anti-Israel Fixation Syndrome.

“On the pro-Israel side, I think there’s much more of a focus on this week than I’ve ever seen before,” said Eliot Mathias, the director of Hasbara Fellowships. “So many different organizations and groups. There is more of an awareness of what’s happening.”

Now in its sixth year, Israel Apartheid Week is actually two weeks, running March 1 to 14. Mainly confined to university campuses, the internationally coordinated series of events aims to reinforce the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa and strengthen the activist tools that helped bring that regime to its knees.

Events often employ an element of political street theater — obstructing campus byways, for instance, with mock Israeli checkpoints or an “apartheid wall” — in addition to more conventional lectures and film screenings. Israel Apartheid Week is closely aligned with the so-called BDS movement — an acronym for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — and calls for an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

Given the harsh rhetoric and strident anti-Israel policies encouraged by the events, Israel Apartheid Week has united a broad spectrum of Jewish groups that while often agreeing on few other Middle East questions, have all condemned the Israel-South Africa analogy as illegitimate and anti-peace.

Joining StandWithUs, the David Project, and Hasbara Fellowships in their condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week are J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.

J Street has taken a slightly different tack from the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus fliers in favor of a campaign it calls Invest Don’t Divest, which aims to promote fund-raising for cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians that “help set the context for a sustainable peace.” A spokesperson for J Street told JTA the group did not want its “nuanced pragmatic” approach to get lost in the “shouting match” that some groups engage in during Israel Apartheid Week.

And inevitably, the shouting does happen. Israel Apartheid Week reliably brings at least a few speakers each year who shock the campus Jewish community by tiptoeing ever so close to the line separating ant-Zionism from outright anti-Semitism — and arguably marching right over it.

Even so, the wider significance of Israel Apartheid Week is a matter of some dispute in the pro-Israel community. At many, if not most, American schools, little or nothing is done for Israel Apartheid Week, whose official Website lists events in 45 locations, only about a quarter of them in the United States. Anti-Israel activists at some schools — like the much-discussed University of California, Irvine — run apartheid activities other weeks that are not listed on the official site.

“In the U.S., I’m aware of some isolated pockets of activity, but in five years that IAW has been running, we haven’t seen it catch on in the mainstream campus community,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 30 groups.

Still, virtually everyone in the pro-Israel campus community agrees that the frequency and intensity of apartheid/BDS activity is growing. And some even link it to a spike in anti-Semitic activity on campuses. At the University of California, Davis last week, a Jewish student found a swastika carved into her dorm door.

“I think it’s absolutely a big deal,” said Lawrence Muscant, the acting executive director of the David Project. “The fallacious lie of Israeli apartheid is seeping into the maintream. It’s extremely disturbing.”

JTA

 
 

Passaic’s David Baum writes ‘Guide to Orthodox Jews’

Some people build bridges with steel cables, others with outstretched arms. Passaic father of seven David Baum built his with words.

His book, “The Non-Orthodox Jew’s Guide to Orthodox Jews,” is intended to bridge what he sees as a growing schism between the secular and Orthodox Jewish communities.

“I want everyone to understand each other,” says Baum, 49.

This is a tall order for one 355-page volume, subtitled “Why We Do What We Do, Wear What We Wear, and Think What We Think.” Its three parts cover an exhaustive range of topics, from theodicy and reincarnation to sex and drugs — all from a traditional Jewish perspective.

His goal was to encapsulate 3,300 years or so of law and lore into a single source that one Jew can hand to another.

The idea for this project took root in 1986, when Baum went to solicit funds from a Kansas City businessman for Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based worldwide outreach program responsible for Baum’s own metamorphosis from a Jew-by-identity to an ordained Jew-by-practice.

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David Baum wants to build bridges between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Courtesy David Baum

“The man told me he’d never give money to Aish because he believed the Orthodox are the death knell of Judaism,” Baum recalls. “That was the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. But it started an idea banging around in my head to have one book we could give somebody to explain what we’re all about. There has never been one book to address that.” However, he did not feel qualified to write it.

Then, several years ago, the Baums’ baby daughter nearly choked to death on a small object and was saved by a quick response from her 15-year-old brother. “For reasons that are not clear to me, the thought of writing this book immediately came into my mind when my daughter’s life was spared, and I committed myself to it on the spot,” he writes. “I hope it does some good. It is truly a heartfelt response to the irrational and depressing situation that exists today within the worldwide Jewish family.”

Baum grew up in a kosher home in Fair Lawn, where his family belonged to the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom. “I didn’t walk into a yeshiva until I was 20,” he says. “My background gives me a unique perspective.”

He studied for seven years at Aish’s Jerusalem campus, during which time he met his future wife, Laurie. He does not like to put any particular label on himself. “I just say I’m a Torah-observant Jew, leaning toward the yeshiva world,” says the member of Cong. Agudas Yisroel. “If you saw me, it would be hard to classify me.”

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As he wrote, he pictured particular readers: “My lawyer; my brother-in-law; people I know who are not observant.”

He gave an early draft to his non-Orthodox sister-in-law, who encouraged him to take a more personal, conversational tone. “There are certain moral issues I speak about that people won’t agree with, but I didn’t write it in a way where they would take offense or feel I was criticizing them,” Baum says.

Given that Orthodoxy is hardly monolithic, Baum strove to keep the concepts basic. “Most Orthodox Jews, from the left to the right, would read what I wrote and say it makes sense. Every Orthodox Jew believes God gave the Torah at Sinai, for instance. But I did cover certain issues, such as Zionism, where you can have a huge range of opinions.”

Baum is counting on his book to make a small contribution toward shoring up what he sees as the shaky future of American Jewry, threatened by skyrocketing intermarriage rates, declining birth rates, languishing synagogue affiliation, and inadequate Jewish education.

Available at jewsguide.com or Barnes & Noble or Amazon online, the guide has an index, but no bibliography or footnotes. Baum believes that by writing from his own heart and head, he might influence open-minded readers to “come away knowing we are not the Taliban, Crusaders, or Inquisition. We encourage questions.... If someone is antagonistic, I hope it dampens their antagonism.”

 
 
 
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