Working to counter the anti-Israel propaganda that’s all too common on university campuses these days is no simple task. But that’s precisely what the Betar-Tagar student activist movement aims to do.
The Tagar Zionist student activist movement was founded in 1983 as an extension of the Betar Zionist Youth Movement, which itself was founded by right-wing Zionist pioneer Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923.
There are Betar-Tagar groups on campuses throughout Ontario, and the organization has branches worldwide in countries such as Uruguay, Argentina, France and Australia.
Betar-Tagar is committed to countering anti-Israel propaganda and fostering a positive image of Israel, something that’s especially important in the current climate, says the past president of its University of Toronto chapter.
“Betar in World War II helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of Germany and Poland, and now in a different sort of war, a war of ideas, Betar is needed more than ever,” said Josh Rosenblum, 22, who served as the president of the U of T Betar-Tagar chapter last year and plans to start up a chapter at McGill University, where he is headed this fall for his master’s degree.
Rosenblum said that thanks to Betar-Tagar’s efforts at U of T, the atmosphere on campus for pro-Israel students has changed.
“I feel like we’ve made campus a safer place for Jews who believe in Zionism and for Zionists,” he said.
These days it may not be fashionable for university students to strongly support Israel, but Betar-Tagar aims to teach Jewish youth that it’s OK to be pro-Israel and that it’s OK to be open about voicing your support for the Jewish state.
“What Betar teaches is that your convictions do not have to be apologized for,” said Rosenblum. “We do not owe anyone apologies for the way we feel and for what we believe and that’s my mission personally and that’s Jabotinsky’s as well – that we don’t have to apologize for how we feel and that’s the kind of leadership that Betar-Tagar can offer.”
Betar-Tagar provides Jewish youth with an opportunity to cultivate leadership skills, according to Rosenblum.
“Leadership in the sense that one can go out and express one’s convictions, one’s personal attitudes without fear of censorship, without having to apologize for the actions of our adversaries,” he said.
The organization is very clear about its focus and remains true to the guiding principles of its founder.
“This is not a social movement. This is a political agenda to develop and foster Zionist leaders, and that’s what makes it different,” said Rose Lax, chair of the advisory board for Betar-Tagar and president of Herut-Likud Canada.
“It’s a group that is trying to develop on Canadian campuses future leaders with strong Zionist values. It is a loud, vociferous student voice for Zionist and Jewish activism.”
The group’s activities vary from campus to campus. Lax said each campus chapter determines what its needs are, and the advisory board provides it with support for its activities.
For example, the Betar-Tagar group at U of T organized “Know Radical-Islam Week” last February in response to “Israel Apartheid Week,” which was spearheaded by the Arab Students’ Collective at U of T.
Each day of Know Radical-Islam Week centred around a specific theme and the group brought in nine speakers during the week, of which five were Muslim.
Know Radical-Islam Week proved to be a success and was covered in the media, including the Toronto Star and the National Post.
These sort of events help educate students who may not know much about Middle East affairs, while also making campus a more comfortable place for students who are sympathetic toward Israel, Rosenblum said.
“The most important part of activism, I find, is that other students can see that people like them are supporting something for which they maybe have never thought of from another perspective,” he said. “It’s to put a human face on it.”
Many students are afraid to speak out in support of Israel, Lax said, adding that a large part of this is because they haven’t been given the knowledge or the support to speak out.
“This is not the fault of Jewish youth and this is not a lack of bravery or conviction in Jewish youth – they haven’t been given the tools to do this,” she said.
“They need to understand that they have backing, that they have adult backing and what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling is real. They need to be reinforced.
“We as a community need to send a very clear message to our kids that this is your world. You need to understand that what you’re doing now sets the tone for what your world is going to look like in the next 10 or 20 years, and you have to have responsibility for the development of that world, but the rest of us have to help,” she added.
With the anti-Israel voices on campus becoming increasingly louder, a group that isn’t afraid to speak out in favour of Israel may invite some unwanted labels, she added.
“People tend to think that if you’re willing to stand up for your rights, that you’re radical,” Lax said. “This is not radical – this is common sense. For a group to say ‘We are Jews, we’re proud of that fact, we support Israel as our homeland, we support Jerusalem as our capital, we want to be a free people without any of this kind of stuff’– to say that that’s radical is to miss the point.”
And with the situation in the Middle East more volatile than ever, it’s vital that people take a stand, she added.
“It’s very important that Jews understand that while at certain times it is important to blend in with the population and not to rock the boat, this is not one of those times. Now it’s time to stand up and say ‘Enough is enough’ and we need to foster a very strong leadership,” Lax said.
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