Student life at Baruch College is vibrant and energetic, with music, bake sales, speakers and other events. Members of YOFI, the new Israel club at Baruch, have never noticed any anti-Israel activity, and last semester they began to wonder if there's just a general sentiment of apathy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or perhaps something deeper.
With the support of the Israel on Campus Coalition, members of YOFI, Youth Organization For Israel, devised a quick, nine-question survey that they administered to the students at Baruch in order to evaluate the underlying sentiment towards Israel.
Baruch has been recognized by US News and World Report and the Princeton Review as the most ethnically diverse campus in the country. Approximately 2,000 of the school's 17,000 students are Jewish, and YOFI wanted to gauge awareness about Israel among a population that includes people who hail from dozens of countries around the world and speak a multitude of languages.
Using free ice cream to entice students to complete the survey, YOFI members spent one afternoon last semester culling responses from more than 80 students. They deemed the effort a real success.
YOFI Vice President Gil Grafi explained that the group felt it was imperative to evaluate the opinions of the student body, and that the survey helped accomplished this goal. "No one is really vocal about their opinions, so the survey was a great way to find out what people are really thinking," he said. "Once we know what people think, we can plan events accordingly."
YOFI Outreach Coordinator David Mandil agreed with Grafi, saying, "Once we get a better feel for the campus, we can cater to what the campus needs."
After YOFI members administered the survey, they began to assess the results -- and some of the answers were pretty surprising.
One of the questions in the survey asked which country was the only democracy in the Middle East. The multiple choice answers included Iran, Jordan, Israel, Yemen and Turkey. Sixty-two percent of the respondents answered Israel, but 38% gave other answers. "It's just shocking that people chose Iran, Jordan and even Yemen," Grafi said, "especially with all the turmoil and unrest going on in the Middle East right now."
Another question asked for opinions on Israel's treatment of human rights, minority rights, environmental issues, security, LGBTQ rights and technology. About half of the respondents said they had no opinion. But when it came to defining Israel, about 65% used the words "war" or "conflict." This sent a clear message to the members of YOFI: Students at Baruch do not see Israel beyond the conflict. "Israel contributes so much to the global community, but the surveys showed us that students at Baruch fail to see that," Mandil said.
As they analyzed the survey results, YOFI members realized that they face an interesting combination of apathy and ignorance at Baruch. "Though some of the answers were difficult to read, it gave us great insight into what our campus is lacking," Grafi said.
As the new semester gets underway, YOFI members plan to use the survey results to shape their future advocacy efforts. "We've gotten a good head start on what types of events to plan for next semester," Grafi noted.
He believes that the next step musty be to "rebrand" Israel on the Baruch campus. "We have to remove Israel from this 'conflict context' and rebrand it," he said, adding that future events will focus on other aspects of Israel, aside from the conflict. "We have to promote a positive image of Israel on campus through educational, cultural, humanitarian and social programs, not only political ones. We're going to focus more on Israel's culture, diversity, humanitarian aid, minority rights and human rights."
The group's leadership understands that collaborating with other campus clubs can help them showcase different aspects of Israel, and YOFI members are planning future programs with that in mind. "By working with these other clubs, we'll be able to show different sides of Israel," said Mandil. "We'll be sending a message to the larger campus that way."
Some of the clubs they hope to work with include the Black Student Union, Peace in the Middle East Club and the Environmental Club. "We're keeping our options wide open," Mandil said.
Work already is underway for a month-long human rights campaign that begins in May, with YOFI collaborating with five other clubs on a social justice initiative that advocates for human rights on a global scale. Each club will have its own event within the campaign, in which they will focus on a certain aspect of human rights. YOFI will address those rights in Israel. "Many people answered 'no opinion' for human and minority rights in Israel," Grafi noted. "We want to give them an opinion, a reason to care."
When YOFI members decided to survey their peers last semester, they had no idea it would lead to such an ambitious spring semester plan, but now that they know what their campus needs, the path to success seems clear.