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Inaugural Cornell LDB Trip to Israel

Kate Sapirstein, The Brandeis Blog

February 17, 2016

It was probably one of the stranger moments in my life, sitting on a plane to Israel. Well, that part was not so strange, I’d been several times before, but the kicker was that I was leading a Cornell Law School trip to Israel, the Jewish homeland, and almost everyone on the trip was not Jewish. To backtrack, this was not a random trip, but something I had thought of after staffing Birthright the summer before attending law school. I was amazed at the way in which students began Birthright, relatively lukewarm regarding their stances on Israel and then returning with a strong connection, a few even announcing their intent to move to Israel, to make Aliyah. Jewish support for the State of Israel is of course important, but in some respects, non-Jewish support is even more important, since Jews are a tiny minority in society.

The answer, however, came in the middle of my first year, when I became aware of the exact trip I was looking for, organized by the Harvard Jewish Law Student Association, which LDB attorney Aviva Vogelstein helped me to contact. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: I had just accepted the presidency of the Cornell chapter of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that seeks to educate students about anti-Semitism, and thought it would be a great opportunity to organize such a trip under the group’s auspices. What better way to educate Cornell Law students about anti-Semitism than to give them a firsthand look at the Jewish State and its history? LDB Treasurer Laura King, Vice President of External Relations Kimberly Snyder, 2L Representative Rafi Stern, International Program Director Frank Sun, and Israel Program Director Lily Lysle all assumed the positions of trip leaders and helped to plan the trip. Our trip was the first, of hopefully many, LDB law student trips to Israel, at Cornell and other law schools across the country.

Through Israel & Co, a foundation that organizes these trips at top law schools, business schools, and policy schools, we received funding and touring expertise to send 40 law students to Israel this past winter break. They connected us to Israel travel agency Routes, consisting of a team of professional trip planners who allowed us access to the top restaurants in Israel and worked with us to arrange an itinerary that showcased a wide range of speakers and activities in Israel. Also a huge resource was one of my professors at Cornell, Professor Menachem Rosensaft, who connected me to the Director General of the World Jewish Congress-Israel (WJC), Sam Grundwerg. Sam really went above and beyond for our trip as well, arranging for a panel of former members of Knesset (MKs) to talk about their varying political perspectives, as well as speeches by Irwin Cotler and Dan Meridor, President of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.

We began and ended our trip in Tel Aviv and, in the vein of any trip to Israel, our days were jam-packed so that we could give participants a true Israel experience in just 10 days. We included everything from the secular, such as a talk from a representative of the Elevator Fund to showcase Israel’s hi-tech innovations, to the geo-political, which included riding ATVs with Col. Miri Eisen in the Golan Heights to the legal sphere, where we toured the Israeli Supreme Court and met with Justice Daphne Barak Erez. We also endeavored to present a wide array of religious perspectives, visiting Yad Vashem and hearing Holocaust survivor Giselle Cycowitz speak, touring the Arab, Christian and Jewish quarters in the Old City as well as the Western Wall, holding a Shabbat dinner and meeting with a Druze speaker. We also did not shy away from complex political questions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and worked to include speakers from a spectrum of perspectives, including: Ari Shavit and a trip to East Jerusalem with Palestinian tour guide Rami Nazzal and his father, Dr. Nafez Nazzal as well as a tour and presentation at the IDF headquarters. Of course, not everything was as serious—we also visited Masada and the Dead Sea and spent some time in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Carmel market in Tel Aviv.

Unabashedly, my end in organizing this trip was not neutral. My aim was to have participants come away with a more positive view of Israel; however, I worked to achieve such a goal through neutral means. Rather than couching each speaker with a biased slant, I tried to present blatantly the different issues and complexities making up Israeli society, including contrasting positions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and hoped that students would come to certain conclusions, or at least question their current stances, by engaging with and challenging our speakers. It is probably still early to tell the exact impact our program had on participants since we threw a lot of information at them that does take awhile to process. One way, though, to track any progress, was to compare conversations from the beginning and end of the trip. When we first arrived, many of my peers were happy to be in Israel, but still questioned why the Jews needed their own state. Such conversation drastically changed after we visited Yad Vashem and met with the Holocaust survivor and exited the building facing Israel. Many participants then switched, instead taking the existence of the Jewish state as a given and brainstorming future methods for peace. I’m not sure that we’ll see the true effects of the trip until participants are actually confronted with an anti-Israel speaker or event. I’m hopeful, however, that participants internalized some information, questioned previously held assumptions and are now willing to meet these challenges head-on.

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Over 50% of Jewish American college students report that they experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-2014 academic year. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism. .
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David Menashri
David Menashri is President of the College of Law and Business, Israel, and a renowned scholar of Iranian Studies and anti-Semitism. The founding director of the Center for Iranian Studies and the Parviz and Pouran Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian History at Tel Aviv University, he is also the former dean of Special Programs at Tel Aviv University.
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