Washington — A decade ago, during the height of the second intifada, Roz Rothstein, a family therapist and child of Holocaust survivors, watched the news coming from Israel from her home in Los Angeles with growing frustration. Feeling that Israel was not getting the backing it deserved in the United States, she and her husband, Jeremy, set up their own small group, with a stated mission of “supporting people around the world who want to educate others about Israel.”
Ten years later, StandWithUs has become a major player in the pro-Israel world, with 15 branches in the United States, Israel and Europe, close relations with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a constantly growing budget. Initially, marvels Rothstein, “All we wanted was to organize a demonstration and to meet with the editors of the L.A. Times. It is hard to believe how far we’ve come.”
Today, the group, with a budget of more than $4 million, is active on campuses around the country, waging a fight against those whom it believes delegitimize Israel. The group is engaged particularly in fighting the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Jewish state.
But in a time characterized by burning debate among Jews regarding what it means to be pro-Israel, SWU’s stance has provoked some strong criticism. Those who claim to be Zionists and supporters of Israel while publicly criticizing its government’s policies towards the Palestinians, says Rothstein, are not supporters at all. For SWU, said Rothstein, supporting Israel means “respect[ing] the elected government of Israel.”
Rothstein rejects the claims of critics who say this constitutes a right-wing agenda. But a close look at SWU’s learning material and talking points reveals a right of center narrative on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One activity for teachers discussing Israel and the Palestinians suggests playing a “true or false” game regarding the facts of the conflict. “The Israeli settlements in the West Bank are legal,” is one of the statements, with the correct answer marked as “true” — though no country other than Israel holds this position. Another lesson, devoted to the refugee issue, emphasizes that Palestinian refugees “were not the result of Israel’s founding but of the war Arab nations launched against Israel.” For many years, though, histories by Israeli historians have accepted that there were numerous cases in which the Israeli military engaged in mass expulsions of Arab civilians during the 1948 war that established the state. After the war Israel also barred Arab civilians who fled or were forced from their homes from returning.
When asked if SWU supports a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians — the government of Israel’s own official position — Rothstein said: “It is Israel’s job to make this decision.” A possible clue to SWU’s own view may be seen in a high-visibility video clip it produced in July 2011 starring Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon. In it, Ayalon dismissed the notion that the West Bank was occupied land. “Please,” Ayalon instructed his audience, pointing to graphic images in the background that showed the West Bank incorporated into Israel, “let’s stop using the terms ‘occupied territories’ and ’67 borders.’ They’re simply not politically correct.” The six-minute video has already gotten nearly 500,000 views on YouTube.
Rothstein said that SWU welcomes any pro-Israel view. But in an interview with the Forward she explained that she does not consider the dovish lobby J Street as pro-Israel because “they are lobbying this country to pressure the government of Israel to change its policy.” StandWithUs has also been active in opposing West Coast communities hosting a speaking tour of Israeli soldiers who speak out against the occupation.
“I think their attitude does harm to Israel,” said Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “If we adopt a view that we support anything official Israel says then we’ll deprive Israel of the benefit of our good advice and discourage Jewish Americans from being involved in the discourse over Israel.”
Cohen, who has conducted extensive research into the opinions of American Jews on Israel, said that to win the PR war, “we need outspoken Zionists from all camps.” Cohen believes this discussion should include even representatives from the far left, as well as the right-wing Hilltop Youth settlers.