StandWithUs combats false, biased media reporting of nation
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
Eden, a 25-year-old Israeli, says she grew up with a normal childhood, for the most part. The major difference between her experience and that of Americans her age was the constant fear of terrorism.
She’s proud of her country, which has been under physical attack or threat of attack for her whole life. Now she’s concerned about another type of attack — increasing anti-Israel rhetoric. When she sees or hears about people calling Israel illegitimate, it feels like a personal insult.
“Imagine people saying really bad things about your parents that are not true,” Eden said.
Eden and Ido are college students and former Israeli soldiers who visited the region last month, telling their personal stories as part of a speaking tour sponsored by StandWithUs, a major pro-Israel education group based in California.
“All you’ve got to do is go online and hear all the horrible lies about your country,” said Ido, who has served in a combat role in the Israeli military.
Eden is particularly bothered by the idea that the only way to support Palestinians is to criticize Israel. She said many Israelis are pro-Palestinian, but love their country. She said too many people outside of Israel don’t have the right information or perspective. Some go so far as to call Israeli soldiers monsters.
The two said they want to set the record straight about their country and its military. One of six teams traveling across the U.S. in February, they started in St. Louis, then went to Oklahoma and Louisiana before wrapping up in Texas, including two trips through the Metroplex. Jesse Stock, the Southern Region coordinator, who is based locally, accompanied them.
The tour hit all kinds of stops, from Hillels such as TCU and North Texas, to congregations like Beth Torah and Shearith Israel, to clubs and church groups. They made hamantaschen with college students, stopped at a happy hour event in Addison, and spoke to students at Yavneh Academy and Legacy Christian Academy. There was even an event at the BBYO International Convention in Dallas.
For the most part, they found they were well received. There was only one protest, at Washington University in St. Louis.
“That’s a shame. Both of us wanted to have them in front of us, have a dialogue,” Ido said.
Many who are anti-Israel don’t want to have a dialogue, the soldiers said.
“We appreciate it when they challenge us,” Eden said. “Challenge us. Ask us these tough questions. All the people I’ve met who are pro-Palestinian have great values, but they don’t know they are on the wrong side of history.”
They said those who did take the time to discuss ideas — whatever their background or point of view — had their eyes opened.
“Some have never heard about Israel, and some are Jewish,” Ido said. “But we told them about our personal story and the need to protect the ones you love.”
Ido said there’s a ton of information out there, easy to access, but that it’s hard for people to wade through the complexity to get the truth. That’s the goal of StandWithUs, to clear the air by education, and denouncing falsehoods.
“People hear this misinformation about Israel’s army and the demonization about Israel to create ill will,” said Roz Rothstein, StandWithUs co-founder and chief executive officer. “Having Israeli students travel across the country, they meet thousands of people who never even met an Israeli before. It really builds bridges. So it came about because of the misinformation promoted about Israel, and particularly the Israeli army, and it’s been very successful in building bridges.”
Both of the soldiers went through training from StandWithUs, which has fellowships to groom and educate leaders in Israel education.
One of their biggest missions is to explain the role of the Israeli military. Ido talked about how he left a chance to see the World Cup in Brazil to be part of a mission into the Gaza Strip. His unit was under fire, and lost soldiers, because Hamas knew where they were going to be. How did Hamas know? The Israeli air force dropped leaflets warning the locals that the army would come through. There were also phone calls and text messages.
“Absurd as it may seem, I soon realized that because of this IDF protocol aimed at preventing any harm coming to uninvolved Palestinians, our enemy, Hamas, knew exactly when and where we were going,” Ido said.
That concept stunned many who listened to the soldiers speak, including former U.S. servicemen and -women, although it didn’t surprise some listeners at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. At least three people who spoke during the Q&A have had their own children serve in the IDF.
The leaflets are part of the code designed to keep the Israeli army the most moral in the world.
“People don’t understand how much responsibility that comes with,” Eden said.
Eden’s role, while not in combat, also included a strong morality component. She helped provide support for the welfare of soldiers. That could be through social, medical or financial help. One of her soldiers, Avram, was living in terrible conditions with his family, who emigrated from Ethiopia. The IDF provided them direct financial support.
“The IDF looks after the soldiers because it understands that these are young people, with families and everyday struggles,” she said.
Ido said that anyone who cherishes life and has liberal values will be moved by visiting Israel, and find it impossible to support the anti-Israel movement.
Rothstein thinks the message is getting through to those who heard the soldiers speak.
“I think people just don’t know what kind of morals they have and dilemmas Israeli soldiers face,” she said. “And to hear them straight from the mouths of young people who have gone through it is an awakening. … It’s just refreshing to hear from someone who actually had these challenges in person and just to know what an everyday Israeli young person is, like, in their 20s. They are very similar to you and me.”
They are also similar to previous generations of Israelis, Eden said, in their quest and hope for peace. Her parents told her that she didn’t have to worry about being drafted because there would be no need for an army when she turned 18. It’s what her parents were told, and what she tells her young brothers.
Unfortunately, Ido said, there is still the problem of those who don’t want peace. He told the audience at Beth Torah that it must be horrible to be a 6-year-old Palestinian taught to hate Israelis and groomed to be a suicide bomber.
“Both Israelis and Palestinians are held hostage by Hamas, because they put our lives, and the lives of our families, on the line,” Ido said. “I hope that in the future we will be able to overcome terrorism together, so we can finally reach real peace through dialogue and cooperation.”
Educating the influential media
By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
In May 2001, Roz Rothstein saw a problem with the way Israel was portrayed in the media, and she took action.
The media and the world it covers have changed significantly since then, but the organization she co-founded — StandWithUs — remains focused on the same challenges.
“There are two challenges that we face as supporters of Israel and the Jewish people,” Rothstein told the Texas Jewish Post. “One is a lack of good, solid education and inspiration about Israel. A lot of people take Israel for granted, and don’t really make a specific point of teaching some of the important details that everybody should know.”
And that leads to the second challenge. StandWithUs’ chief executive officer said that misinformation comes not only from those with an ax to grind, but journalists who don’t have the facts.
“It could be just innocent mistakes, it could be deliberate, but you’re just not getting it right,” she said. “Journalists educate the public, and sometimes it is unfortunate, because they don’t have proper information, proper context, and they really need to do a little bit more research to get it right.”
As a result, StandWithUs has focused on providing a platform to educate pro-Israel advocates and those seeking more information.
“When people who don’t have good information are challenged with misinformation, they don’t really know where to begin to respond,” Rothstein said. “We have tremendous platforms to meet these challenges. That is the nature of our work.”
When StandWithUs was founded, Rothstein didn’t anticipate it growing into an organization with huge national and international impact. But as the anti-Israel movement grew, the need to push back grew, and her organization went right into the fray.
Rothstein said those with anti-Israel sentiment have now adjusted by focusing on BDS.
“Now everybody sits under the same umbrella as the boycott movement,” she said. “Divestment on campuses is the tool.”
Groups are using apartheid weeks and Palestinian awareness weeks, bringing the same materials from campus to campus. But Rothstein said most of the political spectrum remains friendly to Israel except for the far left. And for those wondering how to determine what is honest debate and what is anti-Semitism, she points to the State Department’s three Ds — double standards, delegitimization and demonization.
For an example, she points to a speech by the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, about the double standard of committees specifically targeting Israel for human rights violations, but not other nations.
Rothstein believes real debate looks different and is welcome.
“If you’re going to talk about should women sit in the back of the bus in Mea Shearim where the religious guys don’t want women sitting next to them on a chair, that’s a policy issue,” Rothstein said. “If you want to talk about Labor versus Likud, policy issues, those are worthwhile discussions and shouldn’t scare people.”
StandWithUs now has 18 offices, a series of fellowships and a massive social media presence. Rothstein believes it is important to connect with people both through national campaigns and memes and on the personal level.
Locally, the organization is still in what Rothstein calls the “infant stages,” but Jesse Stock, the Southern Region coordinator, moved to the area last year. He handled the recent regional Israeli soldiers’ speaking tour, accompanying Eden and Ido from St. Louis to New Orleans, through Oklahoma and Texas. There were numerous stops in the Metroplex, including Frisco, Dallas, Fort Worth and Richardson.
“We have a long way to go, but we are making great progress,” Stock said. “Currently, we are working hard to make StandWithUs available to anyone who needs resources about Israel.”
Rothstein visited for an event at Shearith Israel last month, using it as a chance to highlight some of the ways StandWithUs has grown, including significant programs for high school and college campuses. A new effort is just beginning to help educate middle schoolers, too.
“We were talking about our work, the origins of the organization, and we showed all the different departments we have,” she said. “Two students spoke about how we helped them and their campuses.”
One of the biggest areas of growth has been on the legal side, with lawyers offering to do pro-bono work, including a prominent local attorney instrumental in getting the Dallas chapter started.
“Charles Pulman is a good friend, and he’s been invaluable as a pro-bono attorney for a legal department that helps faculty and community members when they have an issue they feel they need help with,” Rothstein said.
In addition to Pulman, Stock credited Robert Austein, Allyn Kramer and Ken Goldberg with helping make the event at Shearith Israel possible.
Stock has worked with a number of local organizations, including the Federation, schools and congregations; provided a pro-Israel perspective to the media; and taken part in Israel Action Day in Austin.
“We’re very excited because there seems to be a lot of interest,” Rothstein said. “If people support Israel, the doors usually open up to us.”