StandWithUs offers Israel 101 guide to help students confront anti-Zionist rhetoric


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.

Truth More Powerful Than Advocacy


With a copy of “Making the Case for Israel” under one arm and a blue solidarity bracelet on my wrist, I first entered The Media Line’s (TML) Jerusalem bureau seeking an outlet for my pro-Israel passion. I had spent the first part of the summer studying Hebrew, and was looking to round out the remaining weeks working an internship that would allow me to hone my Israel advocacy skills before returning to Los Angeles.

It was unlikely then that I would connect with TML at all, since it is distinctly not an advocacy organization. But I decided to seek an interview with them, and they decided to talk to me, a 22-year-old UCLA graduate with a communications degree.

There I was, speaking with TML founder Felice Friedson, who was challenging my devotion to Israel — at least when it comes to being a journalist. I had never stopped to consider it from Felice’s perspective before, but it made sense: “One cannot be a journalist and an advocate,” she insisted.

Felice explained convincingly that it’s not the role of a journalist to make a case, but rather to present the facts. A true advocate, she continued, must believe that objective listeners, viewers or readers — hearing all the facts — will come to a like understanding. But if you twist, spin, tweak or hold back, the discerning person wants to know what you’re hiding and why you’re hiding it. And then you’ve lost him or her.

What I learned that afternoon made sense, so much so that I agreed to return to TML — an accredited news bureau, working in radio, television, Internet (www.themedialine.org) and print. — as an intern.

From its state-of-the-art Jerusalem facility, it produces and distributes “The International News Hour,” a daily radio program carried by the USA Radio Network; its weekend radio program, “Mideast Sunday”; television content that reaches across America through more than 300 stations; and articles for newspapers and magazines. Its amazingly dedicated staff is multilingual, speaking and writing in the languages of the region.

It has become, in effect, the Jerusalem bureau for many Southern California radio and television affiliates. They say all roads lead to home: As if to illustrate the point, TML provided live, on-air reports for Doug McIntyre’s morning program on KABC radio in Los Angeles every day during my first week there.

Being on the inside, I was able to witness the importance TML attaches to telling the entire story, despite the intense pace. This news service focuses on context, background and perspective.

Within days of my arrival, I had not only met senior officials of the government of Israel, but an official of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as well. I quickly found my greatest fear melting away. Felice’s discourse had left me wondering whether all that scrutiny of Israel would chip away at my passion for the Jewish state.

Ultimately, a willingness to see the faults of Israel with open eyes made the country’s extraordinary qualities also stand out, and made Israel’s survival seem more incredible and entirely worthwhile. Meeting close up with players on both sides of this very real and very scary drama moves the conflict to a level far above the platitudes we reflexively draw upon when describing Israel and the Palestinians.

TML founders, Felice and Michael Friedson, really put their principles to the test when they saw an opportunity to bring Israeli and Palestinian journalists together — as professionals covering two sides of a single conflict. That is why they created the Mideast Press Club.

More than 60 journalists turned out for the inaugural session of the Mideast Press Club at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel last March. The kickoff featured heads of Israeli and Palestinian television leading a discussion of “Covering the Other Side of the Story.” Breakout sessions for specific disciplines followed.

At the end of June, more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian journalists returned to the American Colony for what proved to be a decisive event in the Mideast Press Club’s young history. Former Israeli Shin Bet intelligence head Ami Ayalon and Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub led the discussion on how each side could help the other in covering the Gaza pullout. A working luncheon saw Israeli and Palestinian professionals interacting as never before.

Just a few weeks ago, the Mideast Press Club brought senior writers and editors from the Israeli newspapers to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) complex in Ramallah, where they joined up with senior editors of the major Palestinian print media in a session hosted by Mahmoud Labadi, PLC’s director general. More than two hours of candid, blunt, gloves-off discussion ensued. The response from participants was overwhelming.

Because of TML’s trustworthiness, credibility and inclusivity, its articles and television content are now replacing — at least in part — newspaper inches and television minutes that have more typically featured anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. Felice recently had her first byline in Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper. For many Palestinians, these articles and television segments are the first media glimpses of nondemonized Israelis to which they’ve been exposed.

This was not the internship I had expected. I had not, as it turned out, cocooned myself in an exercise of passion for Israel. I had done something better. I learned that truth — the whole truth — and credibility are more powerful than hype and promotion.

As Felice had counseled, it’s a matter of trust.

Felice and Michael Friedson, will be appearing in Los Angeles Sept. 12-14. For information, e-mail editor@themedialine.org or Rona Ram, ronaram@gmail.com.

Rona Ram, a recent communications graduate from UCLA, is an intern for The Media Line.

 

Brand Israel


 

What do you think about when you hear the word Israel?

Chances are if you’re like most Americans, when you hear Israel, you think war. Ask most Americans to free-word associate with the word “Israel” and they’d probably say: terrorists, Palestinians, danger and conflict.

At best.

At worst, oppression and ethnic cleansing.

But there are people out there who are trying to change that.

One of them is Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, a California-based media advocacy group that tries to promote Israel “beyond the conflict,” its Web site says. On the site (www.Israel21c.com) are articles primarily about technology, health and business — anything but the conflict.

“Our modern brand is in trouble,” Weinberg told a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders who gathered last week to discuss branding and advocacy on Israel at the Israeli consulate.

The brand he talks about, of course, is Israel. In America, “Israel is better known than liked,” Weinberg said, referring to a recent Young & Rubicam survey that measured Israel as a brand, to discover people’s emotional attachment to it.

Mainstream Americans — especially college students — have a lot of emotions toward Israel; attachment is another story. Weinberg’s point: Change the subject.

“The ‘Israel-Palestine Conflict’ is a no-win hasbara war,” said businessman Jonathan Medved, the main speaker of the morning. “Whoever sets the terms of the debates wins. If we continue to argue only on this turf, then even the best ‘ambassador’ is doomed to failure.”

This message wasn’t exactly popular with some meeting participants, who spend much of their time on campus battling pro-Palestinian groups and engaged in the hasbara, or advocacy, wars.

But, if you accept Medved and Weinberg’s logic, what is a pro-Israel advocate to do?

They do not advise putting all the advocates out of business. They do believe in changing the mix — taking the focus off the conflict.

Medved is the founder and general partner of Israel Seed Partners, an Israel-focused venture capital fund of $262 million. In 2004, he said, $1.46 billion was invested in Israel (up 45 percent from 2003), with 55 percent of the total dollars invested from outside Israel.

Of course foreign investment is good for Israel; and it also may profit investors, as well. After all, Israel is a hotbed of technology, creating everything from computer chips to voice technology.

But can changing the subject from the conflict to technology really help?

Medved said it reaches out to core constituencies in America.

“It speaks to Jews, makes them proud and mobilizes them,” he said, noting that a technology pitch also appeals to Christians, the Asian community and the business community.

The concept, of course, is to appeal to Americans’ self-interest, be it business, health or technology, and have them associate Israel with those concepts.

How will this help, though, on campus, where the battle is about the conflict?

Medved has one word: Divestment. He tells a story about a meeting at Carnegie Mellon University on how to divest from Israel. One student stood up and said something to the effect of, “Wait a minute. Do you mean I have to stop using my computer? My credit card? My voice mail? Forget it!”

The point is: Americans are too invested in Israel to divest. Consider that Teva pharmaceuticals is the largest distributor of generic pills in America, or that most laptops contain a chip produced in Israel — it wouldn’t be easy to boycott Israeli products. (Although, as someone at the meeting pointed out, divestment could target specific industries, like the military. And just targeting tourism could have a devastating effect.)

It’s not only about defending against divestment, Medved said. It’s about encouraging investment before the subject becomes divestment.

Medved advocates hosting investment lectures at business schools, science schools. Forget the social sciences, he said.

Israel certainly is about more than the conflict. It’s about great food, innovative art, cutting-edge music; it has pioneered in fields of democracy, religion and the judicial system (although it certainly has farther to go on all these fronts).

Would an American form a better opinion of Israel after learning that Israeli technology produced his computer chip or provided her affordable medicine or developed their uncle’s artificial heart or manufactured my cheap Gap clothing? (OK that last one’s not technology, but it’s important to me.)

I don’t know.

The truth is — and I suspect Medved and Weinberg would agree — the conflict in Israel is the elephant in the room that must be addressed. And the peace process is the best hope Israel has for improving its image.

On the other hand, people are tired of hearing about the conflict. And Israel is about so much more than the struggle. So a campus event addressing another subject — from Israel’s venture-capital opportunities to Israeli films — might not alter perceptions, but it could inspire a second look or a deeper one. It might make someone willing to listen.

 

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