Roz Rothstein wanted nothing more than to relax after a long flight from Los Angeles to New York. Instead, the head of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based Israel advocacy group, found herself face to face with the anti-Zionist attitudes she and her organization work to eradicate.
During the cab ride to her hotel, Rothstein asked her driver about former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to make small talk. The Salvadorian-born man grew agitated, she said, talking about why Americans needed a Democratic president; how the Republicans had lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and how, in the Gulf War, the Americans had overreacted to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Rothstein said the driver wrapped up with: “People always steal land from each other, just as the Jews stole land from the Arabs in 1948. No Jews lived in Israel before then.”
At a red light, Rothstein reached into her briefcase and fished out a copy of “Israel 101,” a new 44-page glossy booklet on the Israel-Arab conflict published by StandWithUs. She opened to a map of the Middle East, which depicts a tiny Israel surrounded by much larger Arab neighbors. Echoing themes found in “Israel 101,” Rothstein told the driver that Jews have lived in the land of Israel continuously for 3,000 years and that, by as early as the 1870s, Jews made up the majority population in Jerusalem.
“Thanks, I need to know these things,” the driver told the StandWithUs executive director.
Rothstein plans to follow up by mailing him his own copy of “Israel 101,” one of 1 million StandWithUs expects to distribute around the world to Jewish high school and college students, pro-Israel activists, journalists and politicians, among others.
“We hope to raise the level of debate,” she said. “When people who care about Israel have the facts to back up their statements, their writings and conversations are much, much richer.”
More than a year in the making, “Israel 101” offers a short but comprehensive primer on Israel, addressing such subjects as the recent war in Lebanon, terrorism and the modern Zionist movement, said StandWithUs education research director Roberta Seid, who helped oversee the project. Featuring maps, splashy graphics and more than 100 footnotes, “Israel 101” expands on a 2002 StandWithUs pro-Israel brochure, and provides an easily digestible tool to combat anti-Zionism, said Seid, who holds a doctorate in history from UC Berkeley and once taught social history at USC.
Within “Israel 101,” Seid said, readers will learn that Palestinian terrorism began not after Israel’s capture of the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, as some of Israel’s detractors claim, but more than a half century earlier, in 1920, when Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini incited riots in the land that would become Israel, leaving six Jews dead and 200 wounded.
Another example: Israel’s War of Independence created not just Palestinian refugees, but 850,000 Jews who fled rising persecution or were expelled from Arab countries in subsequent years, Seid added.
By taking a “historically factual and balanced approach” to Israel, past and present, “Israel 101” is of considerable value, said Michael Waterman, a teacher of current events and contemporary Israel at the Los Angeles Hebrew High School, an after-school program for Jewish teenagers.
“When you find out that Israel is a full democracy and that Arabs sit in the Knesset, that Arabs have full voting rights … it makes you suspect of a lot of things you hear on the news,” said Waterman, who uses “Israel 101” as a teaching tool and plans to distribute 100 copies to students.
Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey, said he likes “Israel 101” so much that he expects to disseminate 500 copies to area college and high school students.
“In my estimation, this is easily the best Israel PR out there today,” said Allen, who also serves as the director of Teen Connections, which offers Israel advocacy and other programming to Jewish high school students.
Munira Syeda, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, called “Israel 101” “one-sided” for its failure to fully address the “occupation” of Palestinian territories, the “illegal” construction of settlements and Israel’s “apartheid” policies.
The widespread distribution of such “propaganda,” Syeda said, “puts up roadblocks in the way of a just peace.”
StandWithUs’ “Israel 101” is but a part of the widespread Israel advocacy efforts undertaken by American Jewish groups to counter what they see as rampant anti-Israel bias in media, on campus and elsewhere.
At universities, the 31-member Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) — which includes such groups as StandWithUs, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — have banded together to better “communicate and collaborate” in the battle against campus anti-Zionism, ICC Executive Director David Harris said.
Those efforts notwithstanding, many campuses remain hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment because of the decades-long “leftward trend of the university, from a liberal institution to a radical one,” Middle East policy expert Daniel Pipes said.
UC Irvine, Columbia University and Wayne State University are often cited among the most virulently anti-Zionist college campuses, featuring visits by anti-Israel speakers and many faculty members holding views critical of the Jewish state.
To prepare Jewish students for such environments, some Jewish groups now reach out to high school students. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations publishes an online newsletter for high school students called the Israel HighWay. Some Jewish high schools now offer courses on Israel advocacy.
Much is at stake, said Gary Ratner, executive director for the American Jewish Congress, Western Region. Young Jews who are fuzzy on their Middle East history are susceptible to becoming “allies of our enemies,” which, he said, gives credibility to anti-Zionist organizations. Such alienated Jews might opt out of the community entirely, Ratner added.
“If you’re a liberal kid and think Israel is like South Africa, why would you want to be Jewish?” he asked. “Why would you care?”
While Ratner calls “Israel 101” “super,” some supporters of the Jewish state are less enthusiastic.