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StandWithUs Israel: Defending Israel Amongst the Students of the World

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I remember that when I was in college, at Columbia University in New York, there was a brick path that bisected the campus going east to west, from Broadway to Amsterdam Ave. This was where the various student groups would set up tables and disseminate information about their activities to students and faculty, religious and political groups included.

I personally manned a table several times to support Israel and promote pro Israel events. There were also anti-Israel groups there. If they were not affiliated with the University in some way then they would set up shop on the sidewalk on Broadway outside the subway entrance on 116th St., right in front of the campus’ main gate.

It was infuriating to see these groups there on a regular basis. This was before Oslo when Israel haters were already calling us an Apartheid State. I remember seeing flyers strewn about the campus with all sorts of flagrantly deceptive statements about Israel and caricatures of Israeli soldiers with swastikas on their helmets.

This was after I had studied in Israel for a year and had been through special seminars to teach students how to respond to anti-Israel propaganda. Unfortunately, most of my fellow Jewish students did not know how or did not care to do anything in response.

There is an organization today which tries to fill the breach of Jewish student apathy and / or ignorance of Israel.

StandWithUs Israel was founded in Los Angeles in 2001 after the start of the second intifada by its CEO Roz Rothstein and her husband COO Jerry Rothstein, its president Esther Rezner and other concerned community members. It has offices around the world. Its mission is to educate students and faculty (both Jewish and non-Jewish) around the world about Israel and to counter anti-Israel propaganda. It also prepares and distributes a wide variety of materials to inform people about the many facets of Israeli society and its achievements in science and technology.

While its main office is in Los Angeles, it could be said that its heart is at its Jerusalem office located on the second floor of the Hechal Shlomo building on downtown Jerusalem’s King George Street. The Jerusalem office hosts the Israeli educational department. They deal with Israelis as well as foreign students on programs such as Birthright.

Stand With Us Israel disseminates educational materials about Israel around the world in many languages ranging from English to Chinese. The materials deal with Israel’s cultural diversity, environmental issues, and technological research in addition to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. They train students to answer anti-Israel propaganda and give them the tools that they need to defend Israel.

Stand With Us Israel materials on the wall of their Jerusalem office

Stand With Us Israel materials on the wall of their Jerusalem office

A multi-colored large index card of theirs has two messages, one on either side. One side is a call to boycott the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions against Israel) movement that has grown recently at universities around the world. It accuses the BDS of ignoring the activities of Hamas and other terrorist groups and cites terrorism as the true obstacle to peace.

The other side cites Israel’s “gifts to the world.” These include technologies such as flash drives, micro chips, instant messaging and mobile phones. It also highlights Israel’s contributions and humanitarian aid in response to natural disasters in countries from Armenia to Sri Lanka. The sides of the card are lined with color photos depicting the various “gifts”.

StandWithUs Israel also has a number of colorful pamphlets promoting Israel’s successes. One lists Israeli achievements in agriculture, medicine, biotechnology and communications. Another is titled “25 Short Answers to Tough Questions About Israel.” This one answers all sorts of propaganda accusations that are constantly directed at Israel.

There is a 12 page pamphlet which describes the medical aid provided by Israel to Haiti after a disastrous earthquake there. They also have a 44 page booklet with facts about Israel. These include maps that show how small Israel is in size as compared to other countries and American states. It also includes brief histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Oslo accords.

Many of StandWithUs Israel’s employees came out of its fellowship program. Lee-El Lewinsohn is 26 years old and took part in the program when studying international relations at The Hebrew University. Currently the Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator, she previously served as a campus coordinator for their Fellowship and spent six months as a shaliach (representative) at their San Diego offices.

Lee-El served in the Israeli army as a human resources manager for a paratroopers’ reserve unit and held the rank of first lieutenant. Since she was an officer, unlike most women Lee-El is called upon to perform army reserve duties.

They have a student delegations department. The Israeli Foreign Ministry coordinates with them and arranges for Stand With Us Israel to educate groups of foreign students. “We want people to be educated about Israel and to decide for themselves,” said Lee-El. “It can be scary for Jewish students to stand up for Israel on many campuses.”

Their funding comes from private donations. They are officially a non-profit.

Lee-El explained how StandWithUs differs from organizations in America that also conduct programs with students to combat anti-Israel propaganda, such as AIPAC. “We work with AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) which is an American organization who, at the end of the day, their goal is to secure the support of Israel in the American government through lobbying. However, we are an educational organization that is global. We are all over the world. Our educational resources are used by all the other Israel advocacy organizations, as well as the MFA [Israel Foreign Ministry]. No one else has the translated eloquent materials that we have. We are a young dynamic organization.”

Lee-El Lewinsohn

Lee-El Lewinsohn

Young is certainly true. Most of the Jerusalem staff is under thirty and only one is over forty and he is the office accountant. As a young organization, Stand With Us Israel utilizes social media. They reach over two million followers every week through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “That’s why the stuff that we do is innovative and creative and hip, because of the young vibe,” said Lee-El.

“Education is the path to peace. Getting accurate information out there, sharing Israel’s story and supporting students who are dealing every day with the war against Israel that has gone global … is the most important thing that you can do for Israel,” said Lee-El.

Michal Faktor, 28, is another graduate of the Fellowship program. She was born in South Africa, grew up in Raanana and has been with the organization for three years. Michal Served in the IDF’s vaunted 8200 Intelligence unit and volunteered for reserve duty during the second Lebanon War in 2006. Michal was a participant in the Fellowship program when she was a medical student at Tel Aviv University. After her fourth year there, Michal decided that medicine was not for her and she now works as the director of the Israel Fellowship program for StandWithUs Israel.

The StandWithUs Israel Fellowship was started eight years ago. It accepts 150 college students from Universities around Israel and trains them to be leaders and to defend Israel. Israeli students do not know how Israel is perceived or represented by the media around the world. There are over 1,000 alumni of the program who maintain a network in Israel.

The Fellowship Program is offered at six of Israel’s Universities: Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, The Hebrew University, Haifa University and The Technion in Haifa (these two are counted as one), Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva and The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya.

There are three full time campus coordinators who each cover two schools. Students from other schools in Israel are free to join a fellowship, but must attend events at one of the universities.

Michal is in charge of the campus coordinators, the selection process for the Fellowship as well as preparing its educational materials.

They choose 150 participants from 1,500 applicants. There are 25 students in each of the six campuses. The selection process has three stages. First, the students’ resumes and application letters are reviewed. While there is no specific age or field of study required for the Fellowship, the applicant’s age and year of study are taken into consideration. A first year student, for example, will have another chance to apply, but they do not disqualify first year students. Some applicants did not realize that the program was only for students and applied even though they were not. About 500 applicants are rejected at this point and the remaining 1,000 are invited to a screening.

The second cut comes on the screening day which is held on one of the university campuses. The applicants are given various tasks depending on their native language, which they perform in groups. They then present their projects to the staff. They are judged on how they interacted with the other applicants and whether or not they took leadership roles upon themselves. Their performance during the presentations is also considered.

At this point the group of applicants is reduced to 400 people who are then invited to the personal interviews which are the final stage of the application process. The applicants are asked to prepare a 60 second introduction about themselves and some use props. “We just want to get to know them,” explained Michal. “We want to know why are they here, where are they going in life, just a general sense of who they are.”

Michal said that they are, “looking for people who are intelligent, charismatic, who are born leaders, each in their own field. We identify the potential, the leadership qualities. It’s a program in public diplomacy, but it’s also a leadership program.”

The students learn how to speak before an audience and give lectures. They are also taught how to speak on the radio or on television so that they can give interviews.

“Part of the program is a challenge. We challenge them and say, ‘you came here because you wanted to make a difference, not just sit in a classroom and learn so lets make a difference’ and they come up with ideas of how to they can better Israel’s image. They are creative. That’s the fun part.”

Shevy (short for Elisheva) Kass, 27, is from Efrat and now lives in Jerusalem. She studied international relations and political science at the Hebrew University. She served as a first lieutenant in the IDF’s Nativ program which helps non Jewish Israelis who serve in the army convert to Judaism. Shevy did the Fellowship in her first year of college, later worked as a campus coordinator and is currently the head of the Delegations department which brings influential leaders from around the world to visit Israel.

Shevy (Elisheva) Kass

Shevy (Elisheva) Kass

Shevy creates the itineraries for the trips and coordinates them. She then escorts the visitors on their tours. The “influential leaders” can be students, professors, or even bloggers with a large audience, anyone who already has their own following in some way. “They are multipliers. If we invest in one of them it is an investment in many more people,” said Shevy.

L-R: Lee-El, Shevy and Michal in the conference room

L-R: Lee-El, Shevy and Michal in the conference room

Michael Dickson, 36, is the director of StandWithUs Israel’s Jerusalem office. Originally from London, he now lives in Raanana with his wife and five children.
He has lived in Israel for more than seven years and has been with the organization for seven.

Michael worked in Jewish education in England. He was the director of informal Jewish education at the Jewish Free School in London. The school was established in 1732 and is literally free and funded by the British government. As Michael puts it, the school, “originally was suppose to make Jews more Anglicized, more loyal to the crown. My job was the opposite; to make them more Jewish and more pro Israel.”

Michael Dickson at his desk

Michael Dickson at his desk

Michael taught at the Jewish Free School for five years. His first involvement with StandWithUs Israel came when, near the end of his tenure at the school, he established a program called The Ambassador. Based on an Israeli reality television program of the same name, the program trained students to be “ambassadors” for Israel. Michael turned to Stand With Us for educational materials because, “they were the best in the field.”

“I realized that these kids were in a bubble of a Jewish high school and were about to set foot on campus and they didn’t have a clue of what they were about to face [vis-à-vis anti-Israel propaganda],” said Michael. Michael said that he used StandWithUs’ materials because they were clear and well researched and that, “the students responded well to them.”

Michael compared his staff to his children, in a way. “When I come in on a Sunday,” he said, “it’s the equivalent of when I come home and I go through the door and my kids run at me.” This was in reference to the fact that the staff is always ready to get to work at the start of the week. “It’s a loving familiar relationship. The truth is this is the hardest working team in the business.”

“We have to have two clear focuses. One is our educational view and the other is responding real quick to what is happening in that day. Real quick, like spinning on a dime responding when Israel is under fire,” Michel explained. “You have to have a clear head and really be passionate about what you are doing in order to achieve those twin goals on a daily basis.”

Michael wrote an open letter about the anti-Israel display at St. James Church in London which he sent to the Anglican Church’s administration and then published on line. St. James is an Anglican church where they built a twenty six foot high replica of the minority parts of the separation fence that are actually a concrete wall. They posted on this wall anti-Israel propaganda. Stand with Us is working hard to counter this. This is just one example of what Stand With Us Israel does on a daily basis

Another is countering the American Student Association’s boycott of Israel. Michael met personally with Israel’s education Minister to discuss this and other issues.

Another project was bringing the top Instagram photographers in the world to a conference in Israel. The people who took part reach a combined audience of three million people. One participant took a picture of the bed in his room at the Leonardo hotel in town when he first checked in and in minutes it already had 10,000 likes. “Bringing 12 or 14 of them [Instagramers] to Israel we’re actually bringing millions of people to Israel,” said Michael.

Some people might look at StandWithUs Israel’s materials and say that it is nothing but Israeli propaganda. They would have a point. But one must remember that these materials are produced in response to some very harsh and deliberately inaccurate portrayals of Israel by people who are suppose to be dedicated to the truth, such as academics.

It does not seem that the other side even needs a similar organization working for it. Many people around the world who pretend to be honest neutral observers already do that for them.

For more information on StandWithUs Israel:
http://www.standwithus.com/

For more information on their Fellowship:
http://www.standwithus.com/campus/israelfellowship/

For more information on their campaigns:
http://www.standwithus.com/campus/campaigns/

For videos on YouTube about their activities:
http://www.youtube.com/user/standwithus

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