May 21, 2019

StandWithUs Student Conference Primes Pro-Israel Activists

Student conference attendees gathered outside the Hyatt Regency near LAX. Photo by Jc Olivera Photography

Last fall, during the public comments portion of a meeting held by the University of California Board of Regents in Westwood, UCLA student Justin Feldman, 21, voiced his displeasure with an upcoming National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) conference billed as a “human rights conference” that was scheduled to take place on his campus. 

“Every year, SJP invites speakers with proven connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas. Some are even convicted terrorists themselves,” Feldman said. “These are SJP’s role models. Does this sound like a human rights conference to you?”

Feldman and his friend Naomi Kisel, 21, who isn’t Jewish but actively recruits her fellow Christian students on campus to join pro-Israel advocacy causes, waged an education campaign to counter the November conference. They held an Israel Celebration Day, distributed reading materials on Zionism and even hosted elected officials, including Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz. 

Both Feldman and Kisel, who run pro-Israel clubs on campus and are in the midst of dual degrees at UCLA, lead busy campus lives. On March 2-4, they joined over 200 other college students from across the country at the fourth annual Israel In Focus international conference organized by StandWithUs (SWU), a nonprofit international pro-Israel education organization founded in 2001. 

“I’m here to inspire and be inspired,” Feldman told the Journal. Kisel added, “Being able to speak with other students who have experienced similar things on their campuses and making those lasting connections will give us people to call and share best practices with when we return to our campus.” 

In addition to the college students at the conference, held at the Hyatt Regency near Los Angeles International Airport, there were 120 high school students, 150 SWU staff and lay leaders from Jewish communities around the world and representatives from at least 33 partner organizations. 

The Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation sponsored the event with a clear focus on students and equipping the next generation of pro-Israel advocates. Along with a multitude of speakers, presentations, panel discussions and breakout sessions, there were Shabbat and interfaith services. Students also took advantage of ample reading material laid out on tables — pamphlets including “Israel 101,” “Israel Pocket Facts” and “Examining the BDS movement” — and an abundance of SWU-branded swag, everything from wristbands and sunglasses to chapstick. 

“Every year, this conference is filled with brand-new students who want to sharpen their skills to be able to have richer conversations about Israel,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein told the Journal. 

Rothstein and others started SWU out of her living room and now oversee 18 offices around the world. With a sizable social media presence and departments focused on middle schools, high schools, college campuses and communities, SWU seeks to empower a global network of activists and educators for Israel.

 “A conference like this bolsters my network so I know I won’t be alone in this. I’m not scared. I’m just excited for what my future Israel advocacy will look like.”
— Danielle York

A panel called “A Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim and a Hindu Walk Into a Pro-Israel Conference” was exactly that. The panel talked about the origins of their pro-Israel advocacy involvement and offered advice on how Jewish students can form partnerships with other campus groups. 

“Start with hummus,” Moussa Kone, 21, said. Kone, a Muslim student from Mali who attends Portland State University, said, “But know that more people than you realize are willing to listen. Be inclusive. Use discretion.”

Chelsea Andrews, director of special projects at Passages, affectionately known as the “Christian Birthright” organization, offers Christian college students trips to Israel. Andrews recruits Christian participants for these trips at colleges across the country and is no stranger to pro-Israel campus spaces. 

“Acknowledge the effort it takes for Christian students to learn about Israel and educate themselves on what’s going,” she said. “It takes a lot and Christian students on so many campuses are making the effort. Don’t assume they don’t know anything because oftentimes they do. Ask. Don’t assume.” 

Students also participated in panel discussions on fighting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) legislation on campuses and mobilizing to condemn professors promoting anti-Israel agendas in classrooms. 

A few years ago, Alma Hernandez, 25, was an active pro-Israel advocate on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. Last year, Hernandez, a Mexican-American Jewish Democrat, became the first Hispanic Jewish woman to hold elected office in Arizona, winning a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. After taking part in a panel discussion on “Feminism, Zionism and Anti-Semitism,” she told the Journal that despite a hectic schedule in her state legislature, it was important for her to be in Los Angeles for the conference. 

“I wanted to come connect with young students and share my story and encourage them to continue doing what they’re doing,” Hernandez said. 

One of the conference’s most buzzed about speakers was 29-year-old Hussein Aboubakr, an Egyptian-born Muslim who talked about growing up in a climate of anti-Semitic indoctrination. Aboubakr, who now works full time as a Hebrew teacher in Monterey, advocates for Israel through public speaking engagements.

“There’s no switch,” Aboubakr told the hotel ballroom filled with over 500 people. “It’s residual. There’s hope in all those Syrians, all those children getting treatment in Israel. There is hope for change. It requires a lot of work and a lot of education. The hardest thing to do is change people. I believe that’s what we’re doing, by being here.” 

Danielle York, 18, a Palisades Charter High School senior, goes to school just a few miles from UCLA students Feldman and Kisel. With studying at a four-year university likely in her near future, York came to the conference, in part, to learn about the climate of Israel advocacy on campuses. 

“I’ve never really faced much anti-Israel or anti-Semitic propaganda and as
strange as it may sound, I’m actually excited to combat it for the first time,” York said. “Everything comes with experience and having that experience of combating BDS, overt anti-Semitism or whatever the case may be is something I’m looking forward to. And a conference like this bolsters my network so I know I won’t be alone in this. I’m not scared. I’m just excited for what my future Israel advocacy will look like.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Roz Rothstein started SWU by herself out of a Santa Monica storefront.