StandWithUs Draws Line on Israel

Growing Advocacy Group Pushes Pro-Government Agenda

Hard Line: StandWithUs has expanded rapidly, especially on college campuses. It takes a strong pro-government stand on Israel.
courtesy of standwithus
Hard Line: StandWithUs has expanded rapidly, especially on college campuses. It takes a strong pro-government stand on Israel.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 27, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
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In 10 years of existence, StandWithUs has branched into numerous fields of pro-Israel advocacy and education. The group’s activities span from its “Israel 101” advocacy toolkit, through numerous fact sheets providing a pro-Israel response to Palestinian arguments, and to an online tool for making rally signs (“Stop the UN Double Standards,” “Abbas: Teach Peace in Your Schools,” are two of the banners offered.) StandWithUs even hosts a website called Librarians for Fairness which works to “ensure that Israel’s standpoint is represented fairly in our libraries.”

On November 28, SWU will begin its annual Buy Israel Week campaign which was set up as an answer to efforts by pro-Palestinian activists to boycott products from Israel or those manufactured in West Bank settlements.

College campuses remain SWU’s main arena of activity. The group chooses annually 40 student fellows from universities across the country to serve as pro-Israel campus activists. The fellows receive training, which includes a hands-on lesson in debating critics of Israel, and are tasked with bringing pro-Israel speakers to campus, passing out reading material and organizing demonstrations to counter anti-Israeli events such as the Israel Apartheid Week.

SWU supporters also keep an eye on pro-Palestinian campus activists. In the case involving 11 students at University of California, Irvine, who interrupted a speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, it was an SWU videotape of the protestors that led to their arrest.

SWU’s partnership with Israel’s Foreign Ministry in producing the Ayalon videotape has drawn criticism from some quarters of the group’s unusually close coordination with Israel’s government. In one case cited by blogger Richard Silverstein, a strong critic of Israel, SWU’s Northwest regional director, Robert Jacobs, met with Israel’s Seattle consul general, Akiva Tor and local activists in Olympia, Wash., in May 2011 to discuss a lawsuit being filed against an Olympia food co-op that was boycotting Israeli products to protest the government’s West Bank settlement and occupation policies.

Jacobs told the Forward that in the meeting neither he nor Tor provided any advice regarding the lawsuit and that SWU and the Israeli government are not involved in the legal aspects of the battle over the Olympia boycott.

Ayalon, meanwhile, cites SWU openly as one of his ministry’s key U.S. assets, including in the Olympia case. “It is very important to make use of all the means at our disposal, primarily judicial means,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 about the Olympia lawsuit, “and it is true – we are using…StandWithUs for leverage.”

Pro-Israel organizations usually take special care not be seen as operating on behalf of the Israeli government, since that would require their registration as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. StandWithUs stressed it did not receive any payment from the Israeli government for the Ayalon video or for any of its other activities. And Craig Holeman, an expert on U.S. lobbying laws, said it was unlikely federal law would require a group like SWU to register as a foreign agent. Holeman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a citizen rights advocacy organization, said that a group focused on public education, as SWU is, and which does not receive funds from a foreign government, does not need to register as a foreign agent.

According to its latest available tax filings from 2009, more than half of SWU’s 2009 budget went to fund student activities on campus. The group does not reveal the identities of its donors, but a 2008 tax filing indicates that SWU received more than $700,000 from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, a $225,000 donation from Birthright Israel International and several six figure gifts from Jewish individuals and foundations.

Although it is based in Los Angeles and registered in the United States, SWU maintains a large operation in Israel and several offices in Europe. The Israeli office, which in 2009 received nearly 15% of SWU’s budget, recruits 150 students every year from all major Israeli universities for a program focused on developing pro-Israel advocacy skills. The initiative is “in conjunction with [Israel’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” according to Jennifer Kutner, SWU’s director of media relations, and requires participants to come up with project ideas to promote Israel.

StandWithUs is also a major funder of Elnet, a European pro-Israel advocacy group.

“You’d better not hit the snooze button,” Rothstein said, of her group’s sprawling activities. “We’ve learned that you can’t fight fire with flowers.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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