L.A.’s defenders of Israel
The notice shocked Karen Klein, head of Students for Israel at Cal State Northridge: Norman Finkelstein, the much-maligned scholar who wrote “The Holocaust Industry” and has spoken glowingly of Hezbollah, had been invited by the provost to lecture for three days this week at her school.
Klein had grown up down the street from campus, followed her father and sister in attending CSUN, and she was concerned about the implications of inviting Finkelstein, whose lectures she assumed would include rants against the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
“The campus is very apathetic, and in the years I’ve been at CSUN, this is the first anti-Israel event that has happened,” said Klein, a senior who plans to move to Israel after she graduates. “I wanted to make sure I handled it in the right way, because I want this to be the first and last instance of anti-Semitic activity at our university.”
First she contacted Hillel, with which Students for Israel is affiliated, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Then she called a group that since it began seven years ago in a Los Angeles living room has become an international leader in pro-Israel advocacy at colleges and universities.
StandWithUs national director Roz Rothstein jumped into action. She phoned Harry Hellenbrand, the provost and vice president who had invited Finkelstein, and explained the complaints her organization had. Hellenbrand wasn’t surprised, and he asked StandWithUs to recommend speakers with a contrary perspective for a future lecture, a gesture he also made in a meeting with Klein. A list of 15 names was drawn up, and the drama was defused.
“That is exactly what we would want to have happen,” said Hellenbrand, who said Finkelstein had been requested by faculty members who wanted to hear how his controversial scholarship had cost him tenure at DePaul University. “In a sense, our lives are made easier if we never have any controversial speakers at all. But that is not going to really happen. The ideal we have, but what rarely does happen, is that people come in and protest and write letters and ask us to support other speakers.”
StandWithUs was born from death, given life by the grisly discovery of two Israeli teens, Kobi Mandel and Yosef Ishran, in a cave outside of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa on May 9, 2001.
“A rock the size of a computer rested on Kobi’s smashed skull,” Time magazine reported. “Both bodies were covered with stones. Blood smeared the walls, and the dirt floor was muddy with it. When the searchers rolled the rocks away, they didn’t see faces but unrecognizable pulp.”
Two of the more than 1,000 Israeli deaths from the Second Intifada, then still in its infancy, the murders spurred a small group of Jews half a world away. A week and a half later, Roz and Jerry Rothstein convened at their home the first meeting of the Israel Emergency Alliance. The group of about 50 rabbis and Jewish leaders, across partisan and denominational lines, would soon take the name StandWithUs, centered around the Web site www.standwithus.com, and within a year would establish itself as a trailblazing grass-roots organization, one of a few redefining what it means to be pro-Israel.
The group’s ambitions started small: arranging a meeting with editors at the Los Angeles Times to discuss what they felt was the paper’s pro-Palestinian bias in covering the conflict. They then turned to education, focusing on how to inform college students and journalists about other views of Israel than what was being shown in American media and identifying anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses.
“My mother, who was a survivor, always told me that the Holocaust, as she watched it grow, began in the schools and the colleges. The hatred took hold in the youth,” Roz Rothstein said in an interview last week. “We have a motto at this organization that education is the road to peace.”
StandWithUs has grown from a small group of volunteers meeting at the Rothsteins’ home to an international organization with offices in Los Angeles, New York and three other U.S. locales as well as Europe and Israel. With a staff of about 40, a budget of $3 million and a number of printed materials — including a 43-page glossy guide, “Israel 101,” and flyers comparing Walt and Mearsheimer’s book “The Israel Lobby” with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — StandWithUs acts, as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said, as an “intellectual Delta Force.”
“StandWithUs may have started as a campus organization — and they are our go-to group — but their educational efforts have gone out to pre-university schools, to the community itself,” said Gilad Millo, spokesman for the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles sponsor of the organization’s annual conference, which this year included the Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian affairs reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh, and Palestinian Media Watch’s Itamar Marcus. “Their PR sense is brilliant.”
StandWithUs, of course, has its critics, too, from those who think it is fighting the wrong battle — hustling a pro-Israel information campaign instead of focusing on Jewish education — to those who disagree with the organization’s definition of “pro-Israel.”
“It becomes a zero-sum game: If Israel did good, the other side must have done bad,” said David N. Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history and director of its Center for Jewish Studies. “I would like to rethink the way we imagine pro-Israel to say it should also mean pro-Palestinian. The interests of Israelis and Palestinians meet at the point of freedom from occupation and self-determination for the Palestinians…. I find troubling the practice of defending every Israeli action. The fact of the matter is there is no country in the world whose every action is defensible. Robust practicing democracies undertake actions that merit scrutiny, Israel too. And that is not part of the mission of StandWithUs. What concerns me is the very polarized way they see the world, which is represented in the very name StandWithUs, which implies that anyone else is against us.”
Most of the organization’s resources are dedicated to providing materials and strategic support to college students, particularly at embattled campuses such as UC Irvine. But StandWithUs has received broad attention for two other efforts — joining Dershowitz and others in opposing Finkelstein’s bid for tenure at DePaul University and waging an ad war against a pro-Palestinian organization that placed posters in Washington’s subways showing Israeli tanks.