As those familiar with the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) know, the Jewish community in the Greater Chicago area is united behind numerous projects that aim to educate Jews and non-Jews alike about Israel. Many students receive misinformation about Israel, and JUF has been at the forefront of efforts to bring facts to the broader conversation. In high schools and colleges across Illinois, JUF’s efforts take the form of the Israel Education Center (IEC).
For more than a decade, IEC has pursued a multifaceted strategy of education and engagement in Chicago and across the state, working with organizations such as the Hillels of Illinois and various Departments of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement. IEC’s programming includes organizational efforts, including prestigious fellowships and essay contests, while simultaneously acting as an institutional backer of students’ grassroots attempts at bridging the gap between supporters of Israel and the student public at large. As a result, hundreds of students from all walks of life have benefited from IEC’s innovative and successful programming.
IEC in Action
On college campuses, Hillel is often successful at fostering Jewish fellowship and community, but IEC is most interested in empowering students to communicate with those outside the faith. An organization committed to providing a home for Jews from every sect, IEC has also been active in reaching out to school faculty members, study-abroad organizations, and interfaith efforts. Furthermore, IEC has strived to support students interested in traveling to Israel and provides an open community of alumni for when they return.
Primarily tasked with providing educational resources, IEC has been behind efforts such as IEC lectures, study projects, workshops, and Israel-U.S. campus partnerships. Catholic high schools across Chicago now use IEC material in their curricula, while the organization’s Israel Fellows program provides peer ambassadors for Illinois college campuses in order to offer Israeli students a chance to study in the U.S while educating their communities about their country. In addition to its Facebook page, IEC reaches out through a wide variety of college and high school platforms, offering myriad tools in order to help students teach their peers about Israel, a crucial mission in today’s campus environment.
An Introduction to Combating Israel Delegitimization
As the United States entered the 21st century, a growing wave of anti-Israel sentiment seemed to spread across campuses, and IEC was founded in part to counteract such destructive efforts as “apartheid week,” the so-called “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement, and other Israel delegitimization programs. As such, IEC provides numerous resources, including its IEC Playbook, to Jewish student organizations in order to help them respond to these efforts. Through these initiatives, IEC has been at the forefront of helping students learn to become effective advocates for their homeland.
The IEC program emphasizes positive engagement, with particular attention paid to remaining respectful even in the face of provocation. Students are encouraged to reach out to Jewish community organizations and pro-Israeli faculty and staff while simultaneously engaging the wider campus with corrective messages, op-ed pieces, and peaceful protests. However, the most valuable advice in the playbook and elsewhere dovetails nicely with IEC’s mission: students can most effectively counter delegitimization techniques by spending the entire school year offering pro-Israel programming in a variety of settings.
For high school students, IEC’s flagship program is its Write On for Israel, which provides fellows with seven full-day workshop seminars during their junior year, a trip to Israel the following summer, and a trip to Capitol Hill during their last year in school. IEC also partners with a number of local summer camps and youth groups. At Camp Ramah, IEC’s Israel Education Project offers counselors tools for teaching campers about Israel, while JCC Camp Chi offers education about Israel to middle and high school students throughout the camp experience.
College students were the first targets of IEC’s programing, and one of its major programs, Israel on Campus, has been used on 17 campuses across Illinois to educate Jewish students about their connection to Israel. Israel on Campus has offered Israel Independence Day extravaganzas, film screenings, in-class lectures, and campus speakers. Meanwhile, through Israel on Campus and IEC’s partnership with the Hillels of Illinois, six campuses in the state have been provided access to Israeli educators, Israel study abroad opportunities, and resources for improving historical and political curricula.
Other JUF Israeli Education Efforts
In addition to IEC, Illinois’ college campuses have been receiving help from JUF since the turn of the century in addition to the organization’s existing programs for Jews interested in traveling to Israel. Its Israel Studies Project has been a key component of the organization’s educational mission, and it has been successful on several Chicago campuses. At the University of Chicago Divinity School, “Religion and Culture in the 21st Century: New Perspectives from Israel” provided students with public lectures and focused coursework from esteemed academics such as Professors Rachel Elior, Yoram Bilu, and Shimshon Zelniker. Other efforts have included a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, a visiting scholars project at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a variety of teaching opportunities for notable Jewish luminaries at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.