By Elizabeth Bernold
University of North Carolina student Elizabeth Bernold at the UN in Geneva.
I never imagined that I’d spend my spring break at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. But in March, Hillel and the American Union of Jewish Students (AmUJS) approached me about attending a conference in Geneva with 22 of my international peers. Hosted by the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), this diplomatic seminar brought together a group of young, activist-minded students to gather in-depth knowledge about international crises and to bring their concerns to the newly-formed UN Human Rights Council. With the support of Hillel and several synagogues, I was able to attend as the sole AmUJS representative in a delegation of mostly European students. There was also one student from the South African Union of Jewish Students and two young Israelis.
At the opening of the conference, the leaders applauded us. "We are so excited to have so many young ‘activists’ here," they said. "You are the ones who are doing something about these problems. You are the ones with the opportunity to make a difference."
The compliments made us feel pretty good about ourselves and our prospects for the week. We were excited to be in Geneva and at the United Nations. With this opportunity to confront such a huge international organization, we felt we could make a difference.
During the first two days of the conference, we received in-depth briefings about the conflict in Darfur, the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the nuclear threat of Iran. “What can we do to fix these horrible situations?” we asked ourselves. We tried to find a way.
For the next three days, our group of students observed the general session of the Human Rights council and met individually with the ambassadors from Belgium, Poland, China, Mexico, Israel, Jordan and the United States.
The meetings were frustrating. The ambassadors with whom we spoke did not seem to care about what we had to say. They agreed that the situations we wanted to confront were dire, yet they offered no suggestions or hope for improvement.
Sure, they acknowledged that bad things are happening, but rather than seeking solutions, they asked, “Who are we to do anything about it?” They seemed stuck in a system that is overwhelmingly political. Members of the Human Rights Council must always act in accordance with their countries’ umbrella policies. Moreover, it became evident that, as a group, these diplomats seemed to be content with the status quo.
Spending this time with students from all over Europe, Israel and South Africa made me more appreciative of the luxuries that we, as Americans, and as Jewish students in America, are afforded every day. Despite our complaints, our media provides us with much more provocative news than, say, the Greek or Bulgarian media. The students with whom I worked were eager to work for the same morals that I hold, but their home countries’ environments are not as welcoming to the Jewish community, or to social activism as we find in the U.S. I came to realize how fortunate I am to live in a country that supports Israel and where the Jewish community is able to fund our numerous activities.
In Geneva, my international peers and I were very concerned with the apathy we witnessed. As a result of our meetings, along with the time we spent observing the whole council, we became aware of an overwhelming apathy towards the issues that plague our world. This apathy is shared by so many countries and their diplomats. If these representatives are unwilling to speak out against the genocide occurring today in Darfur, what then can actually be done to save those people? We didn’t have an answer, but I figured there must be some way to make a positive difference.
Judaism is a religion of action — we hear that our responsibility is tikkun olam, “To heal the world.” With our social justice initiatives, American Jewish students are fulfilling this mitzvah. By organizing events to remember the Holocaust and other genocides, Hillel is doing just that. By raising money and awareness for refugees from the genocide in Darfur, we are making a difference. By advocating for Israel, we are caring for our own people.
It is easy to say that is enough—but after witnessing the inefficiencies of the largest intergovernmental organization in the world, I have come to realize that we can never do enough. Each program we organize, each person we educate, every dollar we raise to help a poor person in the world—makes a positive impact. Although encountering roadblocks in Geneva was certainly frustrating, I now believe it is possible for us to do more. The world, our communities, and Judaism, too, demand and need us to do more.
After my eye-opening experience in Geneva, I feel confident in my belief that while we aren’t diplomats, (or maybe because we aren’t diplomats) we each have the opportunity to make the world a better place. Whether lobbying our government, starting our own fundraising initiatives, or joining with others who share our beliefs about activism, we each have the opportunity and the responsibility to make positive change in the world.
Elizabeth Bernold is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.