Putting the Jew in GU: Israel Advocacy at a Catholic College
By Jessica Tannenbaum
The writer is a senior at Georgetown University and former President of the Georgetown Israel Alliance.
Being a pro-Israel advocate at Georgetown is like getting lost in the Old City of Jerusalem: even though you will eventually attain the Western Wall of successful events, overcoming bureaucratic red tape and student indifference recalls the frustration of wandering through the blind passageways in the Jewish Quarter.
Georgetown University hosts a small, but active Jewish population, accounting for approximately 6.5% of the total undergraduate student body. Since Georgetown is a Jesuit school, one might assume that the prominent Catholic identity may hinder widespread interest in Israel. In fact, the opposite is true: Georgetown’s Jesuit passion for diversity and education as well as its emphasis on foreign policy provides an ideal culture for receptiveness toward Israel-related events.
Despite this open-mindedness and worldly curiosity of the student body, a few major obstacles detract from the achievements of pro-Israel advocacy groups on campus. On a fundamental level, the small size of the Jewish population undermines the direct pool of students immediately willing to come to events. While schools like Northwestern may have more students interested in Israel because of their religious or cultural background, Georgetown has a much smaller base of Jewish interest. Whereas one-hundred Jewish freshmen may join an Israel group without thinking, few students at Georgetown would join an Israel-focused group without a deep passion for the issues.
More significantly, Georgetown is an ardently pro-Arab campus. The university not only maintains an important campus in Qatar, but boasts a prominent Arabic and Middle Eastern program. Moreover, Georgetown historians are known for their pro-Arab (and, at times, anti-Israel) perspective. This mindset creates an environment of antipathy, if not outright hostility toward Israel advocacy. Among the Jewish population on campus, significantly more Jews are members of J-Street U than the Georgetown Israel Alliance, which does not take a political position and discusses cultural and historical interests as well as contemporary affairs. At Georgetown, most Jews, non-Jews, and even professors are highly critical of Israel. Amidst this culture, it is difficult to gain attendance and interest in even mild, Israeli culture events.
As a liberal Jew, I understand this dilemma. While I am highly critical of the Israeli government, I still love Israel and even studied abroad in Jerusalem two summers ago. Throughout my Israel-advocacy experience, I confronted the central challenge of how to get the indifferent, the rightfully critical, and the overly hostile proponents to be willing to appreciate the good that Israel has to offer.
One solution: Co-sponsorship. Creating non-political events with different clubs enables students who would not necessarily know much about Israel to learn about its advancement. For example, the Georgetown Israel Alliance teamed up with the Breast Cancer Awareness Club to host an GU Israel professor to discuss Israeli research and breakthroughs in breast cancer. Through this event, Israel did not appear as a country of violence and oppression, but showcased progress and modernity. Fittingly amidst the D.C. backdrop of the campus, networking goes a long way for pro-Israel advocacy.