This blog post is by Zach Schaffer, a junior studying political science and communication/rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. On campus he is an Israel advocate, leader in Hillel, photographer, and brother of Beta Theta Pi. I recently attended The David Project’s 2014 Relationship Building Institute in Boston. At this conference, we discussed everything from networking skills to Operation Protective Edge, but perhaps the most impactful conversation we had was about answering the hard questions on campus.
By the end of the conference we had gained the skills to communicate about Israel and engage students on campus, but many of us still had some lingering questions and reservations. Fortunately, one of the last workshops of the conference was an open discussion between The David Project staff and students on a few of the most common – and difficult – questions that we will likely face as relationship builders on campus this fall.
Below are four of the tough questions we discussed along with the notes we came up with.
“I don’t want to pick sides.”
When student leaders on campus are approached about Israel, they often are anxious to get involved at all because they feel that they have to pick a side. Luckily, this is not the case. When a student says this, it is often best to embrace that ideology. Saying something like “I don’t choose sides, I’m not asking you to either” can help mitigate that apprehension. You can also make it clear that talking about Israel is not about picking sides, but engaging in conversation and forming personal connections. Israel does not have to be a divisive topic, but in order to make that a reality on our campuses, we need to engage students in conversations and not debates.
“We don’t want to get mixed up in politics.” Or “We’re not a political organization.”
This is a different side of the same coin as “I don’t want to pick sides.” It can be very difficult for students and groups to involve themselves in divisive topics. It is sometimes best to just avoid the thorns and discuss the roses. Israel is a nuanced country and there is much more to talk about than just “the conflict.” First, identify your audience. Actively listen about their interests, goals, and group. Once you have sought to understand that person, you can then seek to be understood. Now that you know what they are interested in you can create a conversation they can connect to. Tell them about your experiences with the culture, from start-ups to the Dead Sea, and try to help them connect through your experiences and their interests.
“We would be interested in partnering, but not right now.”
A student may say this for a number of reasons, but what is important is that you don’t take that response as a rejection. In marketing they say, “No just means ask me later.” Ask the student what their hesitations are, and once you understand those feelings you can try to re-frame your approach. Most importantly, continue to form a personal relationship with that person. Invite the individual and their friends to Israel events and/or Shabbat dinner at Hillel, attend their programs, and offer to be a resource for them on campus. As the relationship between you and that student progresses, the relationship between your groups and the likelihood of collaboration grows.
“I don’t know enough to become involved.”
Many students often would like to become involved with Israel on campus, but they feel that they don’t have the knowledge and tools to advocate for Israel. What many of them don’t realize is how much they actually know. Whether they went on Birthright or went to religious school, try to show them that they likely know more than most of their peers. You don’t need to memorize statistics to be an Israel advocate, you simply need a passion for the Jewish state and a personal narrative to share. A participant of the Relationship Building Institute Shayna Friedman wrote “I don’t have all the answers to all of the hard questions that people ask when it comes to Israel and the conflict at large, but what I do have is my story, and for now that is enough.” Explain to them that their story is truly all they need.