Across North America, pro-Israel campus activists are met with a great deal of opposition. They face challenges from anti-Israel detractors in the form of Students for Justice in Palestine, bias in classrooms, and public demonstrations like BDS campaigns and Israel Apartheid Week. They are asked tough questions about Israeli policy that they may not always feel equipped to answer, but nevertheless they must, because to the askers, they are the face of Israel on campus.
While the challenges that campus leaders face are numerous, so too are the resources available to them. There are a plethora of organizations that focus on Israel on campus, and provide resources, programs, and support for pro-Israel student activists. Amongst these is the World Zionist Organization, a part of Israel’s Department for Diaspora Activities. This organization, originally founded by Theodore Herzl, serves to connect Jews around the world with Israel, and provides opportunities for the exploration of ones own personal Zionism, as well as the movement as a whole.
The World Zionist Organization holds an annual conference for students and young professionals known as YZL, the Young Zionist Leadership conference. This unique initiative brings together Zionist leaders from across the spectrum of political and religious affiliations, all of whom interpret what it is to be a Zionist differently, but who unite under their passion for and commitment to Israel. Bringing together such a diverse group of young leaders is truly representative of the future of the Zionist movement. With participants coming from organizations ranging from JStreet to ZOA in terms of ideological background, the World Zionist Organization took advantage of the opportunity to draw on the varying opinions and experiences of those present, and didn’t shy away from asking tough questions about Israel and Zionism.
Chief amongst the activities of the YZL conference were numerous opportunities for participants to explore their personal relationships with Israel and Zionism, and to reflect upon their own Jewish identities. It is important that when considering the future of the Zionist movement, particularly within the North American Jewish community, that individual connections to and bonds with Israel be nurtured so that the future leaders of the movement remain committed to Israel and are able to understand its importance to them as Americans.
One of the themes stressed throughout the conference was the importance of developing a personal connection with Israel by spending time there, as well as by learning and educating oneself about Israeli history and current events. Israel Maimon, the keynote speaker of the conference and Israeli Chief of Staff under Ariel Sharon, discussed the importance of young Jews spending time in Israel on programs and individually, saying “Come to Israel. The best way to market Israel is not to talk about it but to sense it. Explore it, and feel it.” Maimon emphasized the fact that by spending time in Israel, young Zionist leaders can connect with Israel personally, and share these connections with their peers.
There are many different ways to express ones personal Zionism. Some choose to make aliyah, and contribute to the Jewish State by living there. Others serve in the army. Still others make the decision to live their lives in the Diaspora, contributing to Israel by advocating and educating others. The World Zionist Organization provided the next generation of such community leaders with an unparalleled opportunity, to grown and learn while interacting with their fellow Zionists, knowing that it is they who will have to work together to support Israel, wherever they may find themselves.
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