February 7, 2024

Fear No Evil: Shalem Mission Brings North American Undergraduates to Jerusalem

Mission participants during their agricultural volunteering.

In the weeks after October 7th, the Shalem College leadership met to discuss how it could assist both its students and the country as they waged a difficult war. By then, Shalem’s impromptu “war room” had turned into a full partnership with the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center, the city’s largest war-relief effort. Moreover, Shalem faculty had started to deliver what would eventually become more than 250 lectures on army bases from North to South. “But there was still more we wanted to do,” explains Shalem Executive Vice President Daniel Polisar. “And with the delayed start to the academic year, we had both a window of time and the physical space in which to do it.”

Deeply aware of the unprecedented antisemitism faced by Jewish and pro-Israel undergraduates abroad, Polisar says that Shalem wanted to provide them with intellectual fortification for “the other war we’re fighting”: Namely, the war of ideas.

“By bringing Jewish college students to Israel, we could enable them to show much-needed solidarity with Israel and its citizens. But we also recognized that they needed our solidarity, too,” Polisar says. “They’re going through an extremely difficult time, and they need to know that their people, their history, and its moral purpose are all behind them.”

Thus was born the idea for a unique study-and-solidarity mission, which, with the generous help of Arcadia Foundation, Maimonides Fund, One8 Foundation, and The Paul E. Singer Foundation, brought 36 outstanding Jewish undergraduates from North America to Shalem for an intense educational experience in late December-early January of this year. Through Shalem’s dynamic, discussion-based seminars; guest lectures by scholars, analysts, and practitioners; and encounters with victims and heroes of October 7th and Israel’s ensuing war, participants learned what is truly at stake in the present moment—for the Jewish state, for world Jewry, and for Western civilization.

Called “Fear No Evil”—a reference both to the famous verse in Psalms and to the bestselling book by celebrated human-rights activist Natan Sharansky, which chronicled his struggle as a former Soviet refusenik—the mission engaged participants with foundational Jewish, Zionist, and Western texts, a key to understanding the ideas and values that Israel is fighting to protect. In keeping with Shalem’s emphasis on close readings and its preference for primary sources, courses also challenged students to read these texts—whether Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Israel’s Declaration of Independence—in light of current events and students’ personal experience.

“I wanted students to understand the intention and the ideas of various Zionist thinkers in the context in which they were written,” explained Dr. Rachel Fish, one of the mission’s core lecturers. Fish, who teaches Israeli history and society at The George Washington University, is also special advisor to the Brandeis University Presidential Initiative to Counter Antisemitism in Higher Education. “Ultimately, I want [them] to see themselves in this project of Zionism, of nation-building. I want them to understand that it is still incomplete.”

The mission also sought to grant students an informed perspective on the political, ideological, and theological forces driving the wider region, namely through a range of lecturers with intimate knowledge of their fields. They included Shalem’s own Col. (res) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council; Prof. Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies; and Times of Israel Senior Analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, who augmented a series of talks on Jewish history, Zionism and Palestinian politics with a tour of Kibbutz Be’eri and other sites in the Gaza envelope. The visit to Be’eri—a full tenth of whose members were massacred on October 7th, and 30 of whom were taken hostage—was especially powerful for students, many of whom called the chance to bear witness to the slaughter a defining moment in their young lives.

“Hearing our guide at Be’eri talk about how he had lost both his mother and his brother on October 7th, I couldn’t help imagining my own family in that situation,” said University of Maryland senior Ilanit Sedek. There’s no way to understand what happened, she added, by looking at pictures or videos alone.

“Seeing what had happened [at Kibbutz Be’eri] broke my heart,” said Rivka Werner, a senior at Toronto’s York University. “The only thing that glued it back together was going to the nearby army base and seeing the skill, the passion, and the courage of the soldiers.”

Finally, the mission aimed to develop students’ ability to speak both knowledgably and respectfully about Israel’s war on college campuses and beyond. For many students, such as Sedek, it was precisely that kind of discourse about Israel that she was missing—and which she was gratified to find at Shalem. “This was the first opportunity I’ve had since October 7th to think critically about the conflict without having to defend Israel’s right to exist,” Sedek said. Talia Kahan, a sophomore at Harvard, agreed, adding that the diversity of voices and viewpoints in classroom conversations was, to her, one of the best parts of the mission.

“Not only was it really valuable to be studying [these topics] with other Jewish students,” stated Kahan, “but Shalem managed to curate this truly pluralistic group that allowed for discussions I haven’t been able to have before.”

As President Russ Roberts explained to participants in the mission’s moving closing speech, Shalem ultimately hoped that the impact of the program would go “beyond the intellectual.” By being in Israel at this pivotal time, he stated, and by speaking to Israelis who lived through October 7th and contributing to Israeli society, “we hoped to transform [you] participants, and spark your lifelong dedication to making a difference for the Jewish people and state.”

If feedback from participants is any indicator, the mission would appear to be a wild success.

“I’m leaving this program with a profound sense of duty and a real awareness of what I need to do next,” said Coby Resnick, a senior from Northwestern University.

“I feel revived, as a Jew and a Zionist,” seconded Werner. “I feel proud again. And both despite and because of what I’ve seen, I also feel tremendous hope.”

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