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The Times of Israel: Building a community network to fight a hate network

April 20, 2015 -    

“Given your Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment [from the State of Israel]?” Such was the question posed to Molly Horwitz this month, a junior at Stanford University, as she sought the endorsement of the Students of Color Coalition in her bid for student government. In March at UCLA, sophomore Rachel Beyda faced a similar interrogation, as elected members of the student government expressed concern at a public meeting about her ability to be unbiased given her involvement with Jewish organizations. Questions about bias do not seem to be thrown at students affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group dedicated to divestment and defaming Israel.

From Miami to Madison, from Berkeley to New York, university students are facing an increase in anti-Israel – and anti-Semitic – activity. It takes many forms: divestment resolutions in student government; inflammatory speakers that justify terrorism and express loathing for Israelis; weeklong Israel hate fests masquerading as educational programs.

As the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement sweeps across the country, pro-Israel students are finding themselves up against opponents that are increasingly driven, well funded, and well organized, often at a national level.

Under the umbrella of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and its leading member organizations like American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), the American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (a project of the Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyer’s Guild), the International Socialist Organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and others – BDS campaigns on North American campuses have grown increasingly sophisticated since they first began over a decade ago. Anti-Israel activists are sharing best practices and working together to recruit allies to their cause.

“A wide range of radical groups use the same anti-Israel playbook. They coordinate their efforts, staging the same events, with the same messages, and the same speakers on campuses across the country,” said Roz Rothstein, ceo of StandWithUs. “That’s why we need to continue to build a national – and international – network of Pro-Israel, pro-justice  advocates in response.”

Each fall, more than 150 university students from across the United States and Canada gather in Los Angeles for the StandWithUs Israel In Focus conference – eager to find tools, training, and solutions. Over the course of a very intense weekend, they work hand-in-hand with professional advocates, communications experts, media analysts, and even a survivor of a terrorist attack. Speakers have included Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, communications consultant Neil Lazarus of AwesomeSeminars, and pollster Frank Luntz, who provide in-depth skills training and strategies to advance pro-Israel activities on campus.

In the face of a nationally organized BDS campaign, a new culture of collaboration between pro-Israel organizations is beginning to emerge. The Israel In Focus Conference – and a subsequent conference that took place this year, specifically centered around countering BDS – brought together professional staff and students affiliated with dozens of different groups beyond StandWithUs, including Hillel, Hasbara Fellowships, Israel on Campus Coalition, AEPi, Chabad, Students Supporting Israel, the Israeli-American Council, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and many more.

This strategy reflects a growing sense among Jewish leaders that the many different pro-Israel organizations active on and off campus need to find better avenues for coordinating their efforts and sharing resources.

“This is not a battle against one particular group or on one particular campus. We are fighting against a coordinated international network of anti-Israel extremists. The Pro-Israel community cannot afford to be segmented. If our organizations are working at cross purposes – or in silos – the other side is going to walk all over us,” said Adam Milstein – the President of the Adam and Gila Milstein Foundation – which provided the financial support to stage the Israel In Focus Conference and turn it into an annual event.

Adam Milstein defines his work in the Pro-Israel community as “Active Philanthropy”, meaning that he not only writes checks, but also works in the trenches with organizations on the implementation of programs to make them successful.

He has used his large Rolodex of contacts in the Pro-Israel world – Milstein’s website lists dozens of organizations that he and his Foundation actively support – to create programs that foster synergies between different groups, building on their unique strengths.

On campuses, Milstein has forged collaborative projects between AIEF (the educational wing of AIPAC), Hasbara Fellowships, StandWithUs, Israel on Campus Coalition, Christians United for Israel, the Israeli-American Council, and Students Supporting Israel. This year, he provided funding for more than 250 students affiliated with StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships and the Israeli-American Council to participate in the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC – and for professional staff from other Pro-Israel groups to participate in StandWithUs events.

“Adam Milstein has singlehandedly brought a number of new organizational partners into the orbit of StandWithUs. It’s critically important to have these kinds of connectors —who see the value of getting many different groups around the table to work on the common challenges that we face together,” said Rothstein. “Leadership from the Pro-Israel community’s leading philanthropists in recent years has ensured that our many different organizations are working more effectively and collaboratively than we ever have before, particularly during this last Academic Year. These partnerships make us incredibly proud.”