Jewish Journal

Empowering Student Activism

Sharren Haskel. Photo by Christina Mia Morales

Empowering high school and college students to fight anti-Semitism, combat the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and be pro-Israel activists is part of the lifeblood that is StandWithUS (SWU), the pro-Israel advocacy group.

It was also the main thrust of SWU’s Israel in Focus International Conference on Jan. 20-22 at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport, which drew 550 attendees.

“You are part of a big experiment,” SWU co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein told the 350 students who attended, noting that this was the first year the organization had decided to combine its high school, college and BDS conferences under one roof.

Multiple sessions were held over the three-day conference, but journalists were barred from the strategy sessions. An SWU representative said this was done to allow attendees to speak freely and exchange ideas without the fear of their conversations appearing in the media.

While there were sessions geared specifically to students, there were plenty of opportunities for young people to mingle with other attendees. Harnessing that youthful energy has been a key to SWU’s growth since its inception in 2001. The organization has opened 18 offices worldwide and Rothstein has twice been named by The Jerusalem Post as one of the most influential Jews in the world.

“This is all of you, experiencing Israel, knowing the facts, knowing the truth and bringing them to your communities.” — Sharren Haskel

Many of the speakers at the conference were young and dynamic. The opening night plenary guest was Sharren Haskel, the 33-year old Likud Knesset member who sits on Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Haskel brought the room to its feet with her impassioned, nearly 30-minute speech in which she claimed that attacks on Israel are “really about anti-Semitism. Israel is just the excuse.”

Haskel spoke of how the Palestinians and their anti-Israel supporters are using a three-pronged plan to delegitimize Israel by attacking the country’s economy, history and reputation. She decried people who call Israel an apartheid and racist state, saying many are “uneducated people who have never been to the Middle East. The only way we can survive in this difficult region is by having strong allies, having communities standing together.”

Haskel said that while Israel sends its most “important and influential delegations to travel the world,” they are often seen as government agents spreading propaganda. “That’s why organizations like StandWithUs are so important,” she said. “This is all of you, experiencing Israel, knowing the facts, knowing the truth and bringing them to your communities, to your neighbors, to your school buddies. This is how you really fight this war. You [students] are holding this front.”

While asking students to stand on the front lines for Israel on campuses may seem a daunting task, SWU has programs for high school and college interns that help prepare them. A panel featuring a few of those interns highlighted just how powerful their voices can be.

Noga Even of Yavneh Academy in Dallas said that, after speaking on a panel about the Israeli army, she was approached by a woman who admitted knowing nothing about the army but who had a daughter Even’s age. “I told her, ‘Imagine if you lived in Israel now, your daughter would be drafted into the Israeli Defense forces,” Even said. “They defend a land about the size of New Jersey with boys and girls our age.” Even said the woman’s jaw dropped and she wanted to know how she could learn more about Israel and get involved in speaking up on its behalf.

Zoe Kurtz of Forsyth Country Day School in North Carolina said the most meaningful program she worked on was organizing a speaking date at her school for a young Arab-Israeli man. “He spoke about how he was taught to hate Israelis, but when he got a job in Tel Aviv and worked with Israelis, he realized what he had been taught was propaganda,” Kurtz said. Today, she said, he travels the world talking about what Israel is really like, “and how education is the pathway to peace between Arabs and Jews.”

The keynote speaker at the closing night ceremony was Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the president of Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center who has been at the forefront of the legal fight against terrorism in Israel. She spoke about how social media — and Facebook in particular — is now being used as a weapon to incite Palestinian teenagers to stab Jews.

“The Israeli government tried to convince Facebook to tone down the rhetoric but they didn’t respond, so we decided to sue Facebook,” Darshan-Leitner said. Within 72 hours, 20,000 Israelis had joined the lawsuit. (“We ran the campaign on Facebook,” she quipped.) In addition to the injunction, Shurat HaDin filed a damages lawsuit against Facebook for $1 billion.

“We will not let Facebook sit in their ivory towers in Palo Alto when the blood is spilled on the streets of Jerusalem,” Darshan-Leitner said. “We get calls from terror victims on a daily basis who want to fight back, and we are dedicated to helping them. We have to fight terrorism the same way StandWithUs is fighting for the Jewish people of the State of Israel, because we don’t have any other choice.”