A message to the world – an interview with Michael Dickson, Israel Director of StandWithUs
June 18, 2013 - published in the Jewish Journal
On June 17th, StandWithUs celebrated the graduation of their 1000th student ambassador (or "fellow" as they call it,) and seven years of activity in Israel. The event featured Olympic Gold Medalist, Noam Gershony, alongside other well-known International-Israeli figures, and pre-recorded congratulations from President Shimon Peres.
StandWithUs, an international non-profit organization, is dedicated to informing the population of the world about Israel, and to help fight the hate and anti-Semitism. The members of the organizations come from the U.S, Israel, UK and France. They use print materials, speakers, conferences, missions to Israel and campaigns, both face to face and online to follow their mission. StandWithUs conducts various projects and activities throughout the world, such as the Once In a Lifetimeproject and the Israeli Soldiers Stories program.
On my quest of searching better ways to show the world the truth about Israel, I sat to a one-on-one conversation with Michael Dickson, Israel Director for StandWithUs. He is leading an international team, pioneering innovative Israel educational initiatives, hosting delegations of politicians, diplomats, academics and other people of influence, overseeing an Israeli Fellowship of the country's future diplomats and leaders and programs for thousands of students in Israel from all over the world. He has led diplomatic, academic and journalist missions to Israel and has advocated for Israel in different forums, including at the UN “Durban II” conference, in Europe, the US and in the Far East.
Dickson (35) was born in the UK and in 2005 made Aliyah. He now lives in Ra'anana with his wife and five children, doing what he loves for a living, and couldn't be happier.
How the idea of StandWithUs came to be?
"We started in a living room, actually. There was a group of rabbis and professionals from Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles,and lay leaders from all denominations of Judaism. Democrats and Rapublicans, they gathered together in the living room of our CEO and COO, Roz and Jerry Rothstein, back in 2001. The climate there, on campus, was terrible. It was Intifada that was raging, and students and people who were pro-Israel were at a loss to explain and understand what was going on, and to educate other people.
There were all these lies being told about what was happening in Israel, even as cafés and buses were blowing up, and that group of people found that to be an intolerable situation. They wanted to do something about it. Little did they know that 12 years later they would have an international organization that's active on a hundred campuses across North America, that they would have a social media reach of two million people every week, that they'd have activity in London and Paris and around the world.
Nowadays, we have two focuses: the first is on campus, particularly, because campuses are where the future leaders get formed, and future voters, and where the anti-Israeli climate is at its greatest. The second is the community. We want to reach Jewish people and non-Jewish people, and the way that we work is twofold: responsive and strategic. We want to be strategic in our programs and train young people and educate them in a strategic way, and at the same time, we want to be able to respond quickly when there is an anti-Israel campaign. When there is Israel Apartheid Week, when they have boycott proposals, divestment proposals on campus, we want to be able to act quickly and be a quick support, responsive support to people who are facing that."
By examining the situation on campuses, especially during IAW, it seems like the anti-Israeli propaganda is taking over. Do you believe that StandWithUs balances the situation on campuses?
"I think that we do balance it. We try and work on a local way, so that we work with students that are on the ground. They know their campus, they know how fast we react, we want to support them.
In UC San Diego, for example, they brought a massive, what they called: "Apartheid Wall." It's literally a representation of the Geder Bitahon (Security Fence, also known as West Bank Barrier,) and they wrote all over it the most crazy lies about Israel. It was a very big thing, and they had people standing in front of it. We responded to that, because you can't leave a lie like that unresponded to, when there's a vacuum against filled with lies. That's why we're here, to fill it with the truth, with education and facts. So we brought to UC San Diego campus a massive six-foot display of our own. It was colorful, full with different panels. It addressed their lies, while talking about things like Hamas and the Hamas charter, and also about all the positive sides of Israel, as well: diversity, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, human rights…It was a complete counter response to their lies and it's a positive reflection of Israel as well."
So actually, your target audience is not anti-Israel advocates, but people who still have no solid opinion?
"A hundred percent. We don't presume to try and convince haters. There are people who wake up every morning and think: 'how can I mess around with Israel today?' It's what drives them, and they're acting from a very hateful agenda. We don't expect to persuade those guys, but if we can show them up for what they are, which is people who are very driven by hatred, then we've succeeded. We want to reach out the wide population, people who don't know or care much about Israel, so that it isn't that the only thing they hear about is a lie. We want them to hear positive things about Israel, and if they see some anti-Israel propaganda, we want to make sure that it's countered by the truth."
What do you think the public abroad thinks of Israel?
"Look, we have an issue that the people see Israel through the prism of the media. The media, as you know, tells a very subjective story, which is a story of war, and it doesn't like to talk about the good news. That is a fact, and we'll continue with that probably forever. However, I don't think that people are necessarily predisposed to hate Israel. I don't think that's the case. I think the vast majority of people don't know about Israel and don't necessarily care about Israel, so we can reach those people through positive campaigns.
We've brought prominent bloggers to Israel, we're working with the entourage of the Under 21 Football Teams in Europe, we brought prominent journalists to Israel, we brought International Law students for a conference, we brought top Medical Students for a conference on Humanitarian Medicine. These are people who are connecting with Israel not through the news, not because they care particularly about Israel, but through their own interests. We find those connection points and we build these relationships and we hook them up with Israelis with whom they can build a personal relationship, and that's public diplomacy.
In this day and age, people don't trust governments of any kind. People don’t trust official lines coming from official spokespeople, but they do believe in people and they do respond to people, particularly through social media. We leverage all of that to really change people's perceptions about Israel and build long-lasting relationships with Israelis, which is the most important thing that we can be doing."
Do you think that the stage given to people in social networks helps to improve Israel's image, or only make things worse for us?
"Both. Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. The internet amplifies lies, there's no doubt about that. Anyone has a platform, and if they want to say something bad about Israel, they can find an audience. So what we do is leverage social media to highlight how extreme these people are, and really showcase the best face of Israel.
We're reaching out up to two million people a week on social media. We started pioneering it a long time ago, and at times of crisis, such as during both recent operations against Hamas in Gaza, we set up situation rooms and we got people to work on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and put out memes. All of these things are extremely effective. So the way our social media work is the same way that we work in general, which is that we respond to the lies that we think should be responded to - because when people don't have an audience, we don't need to amplify the message – but at the same time, in a normal time, we're also putting up positive stories about Israel, things that people can relate to from a point of view of human interest."
How do you respond to people attacking you on social networks and in person, trying to counter your statement?
"We deal with truth and with facts, and everyone has their own opinions, but we deal with historical facts, and with truth, and the truth is we don't worry to have a debate. We're happy to have a debate, because it ends up exposing the other side, not us.
People do attack us. They attack anything Zionist and anything to do with Israel. One of the things that we try and expose about BDS movements is that it's not about boycotting Israel until they do X Y Z, it's about boycotting Israel until they don't exist anymore. So where they're coming from is a pure anti-Israel agenda. It's not that they want to bully us to make peace; they want to bully us until we don't exist. Some peple understand that, that is why there are Israeli companies, like Sodastream, who are heavily targeted by boycotters buy still manage to succeed and even work with us and support our target. We're pro- peace. We're pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Israeli. We'd be mad not to. We want peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbors. We also want all Israelis to live in security. They shouldn't have to worry about their own personal safety. The people in the boycott movements do not feel the same way. Therefore, we're the moderates, they're the extremists."
Michael's top 10 tips for pro-Israeli Social Networks activities
1. You don’t need to engage with the Israel-haters. Do challenge lies online but remember that your key audience are the ‘undecided’ and ‘unconnected’ people who are watching.
2. Be civil, don’t be polemic, state facts and truth in the way that people can empathize with.
3. Not everyone may be focused on Israel as you are – connect to people based on their likes, hobbies and interests and link them to Israel.
4. The key word: empathy. Try and get people to put themselves in the place of Israelis, to understand the challenges they face and the lives they lead.
5. Stress Israel’s centrality to Jews: Israel is the only Jewish nation state, 65 years young and 3,000 years old. Israel, and no country, is perfect but we need not apologize for wanting Israel to leave in freedom and peace and for trying to make sure no harm comes to their citizens.
6. Some people like countries. All people like people. So add an ‘i’ on the end of Israel and talk online about Israelis – the people.
7. Hastags (#) are a great way to get your post noticed by people who will be interested.
8. Images share best. Stunning images of Israel’s landscape, your vacation photos or attractive images of things going on in Israel will appeal to many.
9. When the chips are down, Israel needs you most. Social media often has more credibility than mainstream media so use it to tell Israel’s story, your way.
10. There is always something you can do, petitions, polls and posts. This generation has more personal influence than any that has preceeded it. Use it – Israel needs you.. online!