pro-Israel activists can win the battle against anti-Zionism
Interview with The Jerusalem Post August 1, 2013
If you are a student who wants to be a better advocate for Israel on a US college campus, are fighting a BDS campaign or want to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, odds are you are going to need information.
There are a number of organizations to choose from, but few groups at the forefront of today`s fight for Israel and telling the Jewish state`s side of the story on campuses across North America match the activities of StandWithUs.
Established in 2001, when the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were experiencing a wave of suicide bombings, SWU was founded to counter the hostile anti-Israel atmosphere on campuses and to educate activists, particularly students, and equip them to reach out to others about Israel.
Twelve years later, SWU has truly become a global pro-Israel advocacy behemoth, active on campuses across North America and Israel and with a global social media reach to over two million people each week.
Recently, SWU celebrated the graduation of their 1,000th SWU Israel Fellow at a lavish ceremony at Tel Aviv`s Hayarkon Park, which included special congratulatory messages from President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The flagship program, which is endorsed by the Foreign Ministry and the National Union of Israeli Students, brings together elite Israeli tertiary students, “the future leaders and representatives of the State of Israel,” according to SWU, for the purposes of preparing them to assume leadership roles in Israeli society and as overseas representatives and `ambassadors` for the state.
The Jerusalem Post Magazine sat down with Michael Dickson, director of the StandWithUs Israel office, and discussed the Israel Fellowship program, the current climate on US campuses and what SWU is doing to improve Israel`s image.
You have just celebrated the graduation of the 1,000th SWU Israel Fellow. Tell me about the fellowship, including why it was established and some of the projects created by your Fellows.
I guess it`s a no-brainer that if you invest in Israelis you get good results, but back when we initiated the fellowship (in late 2006), there was investment in Diaspora youth and Taglit-Birthright was really taking off, but no one seemed to be harnessing the talent and ability of Israeli students. Our mission was to identify and empower outstanding Israeli student ambassadors and future leaders of Israel.
Some of the projects created by the SWU Israel Fellows include: the Humanitarian Medicine Conference, in which over 50 top medical students from around the world came to learn from Israeli doctors and meet IDF teams that treat patients following terrorist attacks, and the support staff that went to help in Haiti and Japan following natural disasters there; the Student Conference on International Law, in which international law students come to Jerusalem to study the subject and better understand Israel`s daily balance between the safety and security of its citizens, the humanitarian needs of Palestinians and the need to prevent terrorist attacks, via lectures and in-depth strategic tours; and Is.Real, a YouTube reality show created by student fellows featuring the daily life of four diverse Israelis.
In addition, StandWithUs Israeli student fellows have hosted prominent bloggers and Instagram photographers, up-andcoming journalists, social entrepreneurs, businesspeople, eco-tourism writers, academics and many others.
How do you assess the current climate on campuses in the US regarding Israel?
There will always be challenges: it has been an intense period with recent divestment motions brought on campuses, particularly in California at campuses like UC-Riverside, Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Davis and others, led by Students for Justice in Palestine with different degrees of success. York University`s Student Association in Canada passed a (nonbinding) resolution supporting BDS. Anti- Israel groups are networking on campus and are centrally organized to bring these hateful campaigns to campus.
Campus is so important because our future voters and leaders are there. The aim of the anti-Israel movement is to frame and to promote the debate about Israel by casting Israel in a bad light. The anti-Israel groups engage in wild accusations against Israel; their aim is to throw mud at Israel to see what might stick. StandWithUs research and campus staff, as well as our Emerson fellows, have been engaged in challenging misinformation and supporting the students who have taken the lead on campus against divestment, to properly inform student senators and peers about Israel. Pro- Israel students are making a stand - from Buy Israeli Goods Weeks to Peace Weeks to bringing inspiring programs to campus.
What are some of the things StandWithUs is doing to improve Israel`s image on campus?
We act in two ways: we educate and we respond. We have programs and campaigns to educate young people and get them involved in educating others about Israel.
At the same time, we are set up to respond quickly when there are anti-Israel attacks.
We don`t like to leave the steady flow of lies unchallenged. We also encourage our student leaders to reach out to their peers from other student groups, to inspire them with anything Israel: food, music, hitech developments and gifts to the world, things that everyday people care about.
We send speakers to campuses across the world to talk about Israel`s achievements, strategic threats, the danger of radical Islam and Middle East history and prospects for peace. We get Israelis to tell their own story to audiences on campus and in communities.
During the spring of each year, thanks to a grant from the MZ Foundation, we tour our Israeli Soldiers Stories program to different American cities, allowing people to interact with IDF soldiers and reservists.
Our effective “Israel Matters” display on campus is a great outreach tool and counters the ugly propaganda “walls” that anti-Israel groups put up. Our Emerson fellows are our eyes and ears on US campuses and lead pro-Israel activity, as well as fighting back against pro-boycott groups. And in 2012, we initiated a jumbo educational program for high-school students to empower them as future leaders on their college campuses.
Is Israel winning the battle against BDS campaigns, especially on campuses in the US?
The fight is ongoing, and the anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine are becoming more organized. But the material they promote is clearly bigoted, punishing only Israel for an ongoing conflict. Their campaigns are hostile and filled with lies and half-truths, and will never lead to peace. Their leaders, like Omar Barghouti, have openly admitted they do not believe in two states for two peoples.
They take over student council agendas with hostile rhetoric that ultimately turns off more people than it wins over. The obsessive nature of the boycott movement will continue to expose its own lack of justice and fairness.
BDS thrives on student innocence and ignorance about facts, so our educational and outreach work has never been more important.
Some critics have called StandWithUs “too right-wing.” How do you respond?
We're pro-Israel, period. Those who want to marginalize our work will try to use name-calling instead of engaging in peaceful conversations. These are also the same people who are working had to marginalize Israel. But being pro-Israel is not a matter of Right or Left. If one believes in freedom, in peace, in democracy, in equality and in the inherent right of Jewish people to live in security in their historic homeland, then it follows that one should believe in Israel. Our members and activists come from across the political spectrum both in Israel, in the US and around the world, their love for Israel unites them, whatever their personal politics.
How important has social media become in promoting Israel? And how is StandWithUs taking advantage of this?
Social media is hugely important. Through it, we have been able to reach millions of people of all faiths around the world. The Internet also gives a wider audience to anti- Israel groups and to anti-Semitism, so it`s important we are always using social media to reach out to high numbers of people as well as to counter misinformation.
We started pioneering in social media a long time ago, and at times of crisis, such as during both recent operations against Hamas in Gaza, and when the anti-Israel flotilla was in the news, we set up situation rooms and we got people to work on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and put out memes.
Social media gives people an opportunity to get involved daily, via polls, petitions and posting. At this time, we are reaching up to two million people each week through social media interactions. You have brought various groups to Israel, such as prominent bloggers, Instagrammers, students and journalists.
The idea of bringing such niche groups to Israel seems to be really catching on in recent times. Why is this? And what are some of the groups you plan on bringing to Israel in the near future?
Ideally, everyone should visit Israel, because the best way to understand Israel is to see it. Since we can`t bring everyone to Israel, we try and bring Israel to as many people as we can. And when we do host people in Israel, we focus on and prioritize influential groups.
How you gauge “influence” is ever-changing, but if we can bring people with circles of influence, it`s a big achievement.
Our “Once in a Lifetime” program last summer brought Instagram photographers with a total reach of two million people, and some of the participants were voted among the “15 Most Influential Instagram Photographers that Advertisers Are Dying to Work With” by Business Insider magazine. This year we`re bringing both Instagram photographers and Vine (Twitter`s video-sharing application) videographers to share their experience in Israel with the world. We will also be hosting YouTube superstars, the future Justin Biebers, in Israel to record videos here, as well as international campus journalists and food writers for a culinary tour of Israel. We have already helped host some of the entourage of the UEFA Under-21 Football Championships.
StandWithUs may be an unabashedly Zionist organization, yet Zionism today seems to be a dirty word, including for many Jewish organizations. If you agree, then how do Jewish and non-Jewish pro- Israel organizations reclaim it?
Zionism is a belief in Israel. We should celebrate it and cherish Zionist history and its leaders and not shy away from it.
Let`s not forget that the drip-drip effect of anti- Zionist propaganda is nothing new. Whereas people used to attack Jews, now it is more fashionable to attack Zionism. Anti-Semitism has been referred to as “the oldest hatred,” but the term Zion, which refers to biblical Israel, has an even longer history.
We should embrace Zionism, empower modern-day Zionists, and I am confident in doing so we will more than counter those who abuse the term as a result of their own bigotry and/or political agenda.
What differentiates StandWithUs from other pro-Israel organizations on campus?
Firstly, we see our relationship with students as a partnership. We listen to our students and understand that each campus has different needs. We empower them to lead within their own community.
Our CEO Roz Rothstein is an embodiment of nonstop savvy activism for Israel, and we hire the best and brightest campus professionals to inspire and partner with our student leaders.
Our educational materials, both printed and online, are second-to-none. They are clear and well-researched and well-respected. There is also our growing social media presence, our interactions there can reach up to two million people a week.
So we have the whole package: an international presence; engaged, passionate activists; “boots on the ground” on so many campuses; and the educational resources to back all of this up.
What are your five best tips on being a pro-Israel advocate?
1. Be informed. Our Israel 101 primer book, and our “Israel Pocket Facts” and “25 Short Answers to Tough Questions About Israel” are a good start, all available on www.standwithus.com
2. Know your audience. Luckily, you have truth and historical facts on our side, but you need to be clear and articulate and aware that they may have a vacuum of knowledge.
3. Don`t underestimate your own influence. Has any generation had as much personal influence at their fingertips as this one? Utilize Facebook, Twitter and other social media to get your message across and reach people.
4. The key word: empathy. Try and get people to put themselves in the position of ordinary Israelis: they simply want to live in freedom, peace and secure from harm. People relate to people, so add an “I” to the end of Israel and speak about Israelis.
5. Get involved. People are not informed, so don't assume they are. We cannot allow lies about Israel to exist in a vacuum and we cannot allow anti- Israel boycott groups to dominate the conversation.
Everyone has a role to play in reaching out to people: so what did you do for Israel today?