By BERNIE BELLAN Fifteen years ago a grass-roots organization known as “StandWithUs” took root in Los Angeles. StandWithUs was formed as a result of constant criticisms of Israel that were rampant on California university campuses, and which were emanating both from other students and university professors.
Jewish students on campuses everywhere aare often left feeling defensive and quite unprepared to quell criticisms of Israel. In 2005, the first initiatives to organize an active program of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel began. As the BDS movement took hold, combined with annual “Israel Apartheid Week” programs on campuses across the United States, StandWithUs developed an active strategy designed to equip Jewish students (also non-Jewish students who were sympathetic to Israel) with the means by which they could defend Israel on university campuses.
On Thursday, September 29, two representatives of StandWithUs appeared at Temple Shalom to explain to a large audience just what it is that StandWithUs is attempting to do. Meryle Kates, executive director of the Canadian office of StandWithUs, and Zina Khamilova, Canadian campus director of StandWithUs, were here at the initiative of Winnipeg Friends of Israel. Their appearance was also sponsored by Bridges for Peace and this newspaper.
Merle Kates explained to the audience that the Canadian branch of StandWithUs began four years ago, joining the 18 branches that had already been formed in the United States. As well, there are branches in the United Kingdom and Israel, Kates noted.
“We provide students with the tools to identify other students who also stand with Israel,” Kates explained. In addition to providing literature, StandWithUs also hosts regular training sessions for university students interested in acquiring the skills and knowledge that will enable them to organize fellow students in defense of Israel on their campuses.
Kates referred to something known as the “Emerson Fellowships”, which are one-year training programs for students to run student groups and mount campaigns intended to counter the BDS movement on campuses. As well, Kates said, workshops are held in Los Angeles for student leaders where they are trained how “to talk about Israel”.
What kinds of problems do Jewish university students encounter these days? Zina Khamilova related something that had taken place at York University in Toronto as an example of the kind of difficulty even Jewish students who are not all that interested in Israel can encounter: Anti-Israel students were actively stopping other students who happened to walk by a mock “checkpoint” that the anti-Israel students had set up, asking unsuspecting students to produce their passports. (This was meant to simulate the experiences of Palestinians having to go through Israeli checkpoints.)
In addition to anti-Israel displays that are often mounted on campuses throughout North America, many students have had the unpleasant experience of having to sit through lectures where their professors are decidedly critical of Israel. Students are either intimidated into remaining silent or lack the knowledge to rebut what their teachers have to say, Khamilova said.
In assessing the typical situation on Canadian campuses, Khamilova suggested there is a 10-80-10 split among students, i.e. 10% are pro-Israel, 10% are anti-Israel, while 80% are either indifferent or have no opinion one way or the other.
Yet, she argued, it’s not good enough simply to be “reactive” to anti-Israel programs on campuses. Pro-Israel students should take the initiative to mount programs that cater to those 80% of students who are indifferent by creating positive images of Israel.
For instance, Khamilova said, StandWithUs has brought in Israeli students who are broadly representative of a cross-section of Israel to speak to and mingle with other students on Canadian campuses. Included in that group of Israeli students were “Druze, Arab, Bedouin, gay, and orthodox” students, all of whom presented a positive perspective on what their lives were like in Israel.
Pro-Israel students are given tools that are intended to help them “distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel,” Khamilova said. She referred to Natan Scharansky’s “three D’s” that can be used to identify when criticism of Israel goes from being legitimate to racist. The three “d’s”, she said are: “demonization”, “double standard”, and “delegitimization”.
Social media have played an especially important role in helping StandWithUs to get its message out, Khamilova noted. Whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or other social media platforms, StandWithUs platforms are viewed by over 100 million people a week, Khamilova claimed, in a wide range of languages, including Arabic and Farsi.
During the question and answer period that followed the presentations by Kates and Khamilova, there were some spirited exchanges.
One questioner noted that, in appearing before an audience that was made up entirely of individuals who were quite sympathetic to the message they had to deliver, Kates and Khamilova were “just preaching to the choir”.
Kates responded: “We need the choir…In Canada we’ve only been around four years. Ask your average Jewish student whether Israel is an apartheid state and they won’t know how to respond. Our job is to educate the people who want to speak up for Israel how to do that. Not all of us have the right answers. We get together more and more in groups.”
One of the two new Hebrew University “ambassadors” to Winnipeg, Shai Josopov, noted that “one of the things we Israelis feel is that we are only being portrayed through the conflict (between Israelis and Palestinians). Do you do any active work telling what Israel does in the world?”
Kates answered: “Yes, we just met with someone who arranged to bring Israeli scientists here to talk about drip irrigation”, for instance. She added that “We portray Israel as a normal country with normal people.”
Khamilova added: “We truly believe Israelis are the best ambassadors for their country.”
Someone else asked: “When your sons or daughters come home and say that their professors have said something anti-Semitic, what can you say to them?”
Kates answered: “I accompanied one student to see the president of the university” (in response to a situation with a particular professor). “You go to every level of the university and see how the problem is addressed. In other cases we have legal remedies” (using over 80 lawyers in the U.S. who volunteer to take on cases pro bono).
Haskell Greenfield, who is the head of Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba, chimed in with this idea: “One avenue that hasn’t been brought up is that many people are alumni of the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg.” If you think that the university hasn’t done enough to stem anti-Semitism on campus, you can “say I’m not giving money to the university. I’m giving money directly to Judaic Studies. At the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, it’s all about your money.”
Another questioner asked: “Have you supplanted Hillel”?
Khamilova answered: “Absolutely not. We work with Hillel on every campus. We’re a resource organization. We don’t have clubs on campuses. We go to their (Hillel’s) conferences, they come to ours.”
Someone else in the audience said, however, “Hillel is leaving a void.” (Ed. note: Hillel in Winnipeg has been without a director for some time. Apparently someone will be arriving in Winnipeg soon to take over that role.)