It was nice to ride up to Portland State's hip, urban campus, with its stately elms along the South Park Blocks. Students lolled on the grass and rode skateboards down the paved ramp past Lincoln Hall (the Music building, which had been my second home back in the day); and the air was cooling down a little from the warmth of the afternoon.
On the way in, I passed a bulletin board where two fliers caught my eye: one for the cultural festival I was about to attend, and another for a Jewish speaker lecturing on Palestinian statehood and Israeli's record of human rights abuses against Palestinians. The lecture promised to be intellectually deep and provocative. It had happened earlier in the week.
The cultural festival was sponsored in part by the pro-Israel organization Stand With Us. It consisted of a long table where tinfoil pans filled with hummus, pita, falafel and various salads were being served; and four round tables which offered, respectively, Israeli snack foods (I got there too late and missed out on the Bamba); bright blue iPhone covers, plastic bracelets, bottle openers on keychains and sunglassess and even beach balls festooned with the "Stand With Us" logo and "I Heart Israel". Also strewn on the tables were informational pamphlets outlining Stand With Us talking points -- about LGBT equality; Israeli technological innovation; Israel as a safe haven for immigrants from around the world; and simple statements that served to justify Israel's existence ("There has been a Jewish presence in this land for 3,000 years," read one talking point). Not a lot of depth here at all.
Two of the tables offered art -- one in the form of some rather childish arts-and-crafts project with press-on foam letters, and another where you could have your hand painted with henna. I supposed this was the "cultural" aspect (Is henna an Israeli thing?). The whole event looked and felt overly simplistic and almost infantalized. Is this what attracts college students today? Where was the emotional and intellectual depth, the questions and answers, students arguing points enroute to a conclusion or hard-won ambiguity? I felt confused, and even a little disappointed.
I met my friend, chatted amiably for a few minutes, grabbed a snack, talked briefly with one of the student organizers (nice young woman, excited about an upcoming Birthright trip and summer internship), and left. There wasn't much of a festival with four tables and a pile of mylar-wrapped snacks and about a dozen college kids in attendance. It was okay; I'd had a nice talk with my friend and a lovely ride across town and I was ready to head home.
On the way out, I passed the bulletin board again, and saw the two fliers juxtaposed next to each other. These were two events scheduled for the same week, doing their damnedest to avoid any sense of connection and yet ending up inextricably connected. It made me think.
Clearly, I was not of the target demographic for this cultural event. I applaud the students for putting it on and for making themselves available to talk openly about Israeli culture. But this event got a lot of support from institutions off campus, and they are the ones I worry about. With all the institutional handwringing about the future of Judaism, the lack of engagement by Jewish youth, and the rise of anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, I think that Jewish institutions need to come up with something better than Chinese-made keychains and simple, sound-bite bullet points if they want Jewish college students to be truly equipped for the intellectual rigor the pro-Palestinian contingent is bringing to the debate. Because if they don't, it will be like sending those Jewish students into a gunfight with, well, a bottle opener.