February 14, 2008
L.A.‘s defenders of Israel
The L.A. battle for Israel's survival
invited by the provost to lecture for three days this week at her school.
The notice shocked Karen Klein, head of Students for Israel at Cal State Northridge: Norman Finkelstein, the much-maligned scholar who wrote "The Holocaust Industry" and has spoken glowingly of Hezbollah, had been|
Klein had grown up down the street from campus, followed her father and sister in attending CSUN, and she was concerned about the implications of inviting Finkelstein, whose lectures she assumed would include rants against the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
"The campus is very apathetic, and in the years I've been at CSUN, this is the first anti-Israel event that has happened," said Klein, a senior who plans to move to Israel after she graduates. "I wanted to make sure I handled it in the right way, because I want this to be the first and last instance of anti-Semitic activity at our university."
First she contacted Hillel, with which Students for Israel is affiliated, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Then she called a group that since it began seven years ago in a Los Angeles living room has become an international leader in pro-Israel advocacy at colleges and universities.
StandWithUs national director Roz Rothstein jumped into action. She phoned Harry Hellenbrand, the provost and vice president who had invited Finkelstein, and explained the complaints her organization had. Hellenbrand wasn't surprised, and he asked StandWithUs to recommend speakers with a contrary perspective for a future lecture, a gesture he also made in a meeting with Klein. A list of 15 names was drawn up, and the drama was defused.
"That is exactly what we would want to have happen," said Hellenbrand, who said Finkelstein had been requested by faculty members who wanted to hear how his controversial scholarship had cost him tenure at DePaul University. "In a sense, our lives are made easier if we never have any controversial speakers at all. But that is not going to really happen. The ideal we have, but what rarely does happen, is that people come in and protest and write letters and ask us to support other speakers."
StandWithUs was born from death, given life by the grisly discovery of two Israeli teens, Kobi Mandel and Yosef Ishran, in a cave outside of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa on May 9, 2001.
"A rock the size of a computer rested on Kobi's smashed skull," Time magazine reported. "Both bodies were covered with stones. Blood smeared the walls, and the dirt floor was muddy with it. When the searchers rolled the rocks away, they didn't see faces but unrecognizable pulp."
Two of the more than 1,000 Israeli deaths from the Second Intifada, then still in its infancy, the murders spurred a small group of Jews half a world away. A week and a half later, Roz and Jerry Rothstein convened at their home the first meeting of the Israel Emergency Alliance. The group of about 50 rabbis and Jewish leaders, across partisan and denominational lines, would soon take the name StandWithUs, centered around the Web site www.standwithus.com, and within a year would establish itself as a trailblazing grass-roots organization, one of a few redefining what it means to be pro-Israel.
The group's ambitions started small: arranging a meeting with editors at the Los Angeles Times to discuss what they felt was the paper's pro-Palestinian bias in covering the conflict. They then turned to education, focusing on how to inform college students and journalists about other views of Israel than what was being shown in American media and identifying anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses.
"My mother, who was a survivor, always told me that the Holocaust, as she watched it grow, began in the schools and the colleges. The hatred took hold in the youth," Roz Rothstein said in an interview last week. "We have a motto at this organization that education is the road to peace."
StandWithUs has grown from a small group of volunteers meeting at the Rothsteins' home to an international organization with offices in Los Angeles, New York and three other U.S. locales as well as Europe and Israel. With a staff of about 40, a budget of $3 million and a number of printed materials -- including a 43-page glossy guide, "Israel 101," and flyers comparing Walt and Mearsheimer's book "The Israel Lobby" with "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- StandWithUs acts, as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said, as an "intellectual Delta Force."
"StandWithUs may have started as a campus organization -- and they are our go-to group -- but their educational efforts have gone out to pre-university schools, to the community itself," said Gilad Millo, spokesman for the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles sponsor of the organization's annual conference, which this year included the Jerusalem Post's Palestinian affairs reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh, and Palestinian Media Watch's Itamar Marcus. "Their PR sense is brilliant."
StandWithUs, of course, has its critics, too, from those who think it is fighting the wrong battle -- hustling a pro-Israel information campaign instead of focusing on Jewish education -- to those who disagree with the organization's definition of "pro-Israel."
"It becomes a zero-sum game: If Israel did good, the other side must have done bad," said David N. Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history and director of its Center for Jewish Studies. "I would like to rethink the way we imagine pro-Israel to say it should also mean pro-Palestinian. The interests of Israelis and Palestinians meet at the point of freedom from occupation and self-determination for the Palestinians.... I find troubling the practice of defending every Israeli action. The fact of the matter is there is no country in the world whose every action is defensible. Robust practicing democracies undertake actions that merit scrutiny, Israel too. And that is not part of the mission of StandWithUs. What concerns me is the very polarized way they see the world, which is represented in the very name StandWithUs, which implies that anyone else is against us."
Most of the organization's resources are dedicated to providing materials and strategic support to college students, particularly at embattled campuses such as UC Irvine. But StandWithUs has received broad attention for two other efforts -- joining Dershowitz and others in opposing Finkelstein's bid for tenure at DePaul University and waging an ad war against a pro-Palestinian organization that placed posters in Washington's subways showing Israeli tanks. The subway ads were indicative of StandWithUs' hard-line brand of truth telling. One of the posters showed an Arab toddler in the right arm of his father, who was wearing fatigues and a bandana and was resting an automatic rifle on his left shoulder. "This Child Could Grow Up to Be A" the poster stated, offering three options: doctor, teacher or terrorist. The terrorist box contained a checkmark.
Such pro-Israel advocacy didn't exist in Los Angeles before StandWithUs came along, and the organized Jewish community has rallied around it. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has given a number of small grants along the order of the $10,000 gift for November's "Israel in Focus" conference, and the Jewish Community Foundation has given $305,000, including a Cutting Edge grant of $210,000 in 2006 to provide "teaching tools and classroom materials for public high school teachers to use to effectively teach about Israel."
"Through this breakthrough work, StandWithUs strengthens the fabric of our local Jewish communities by instilling knowledge and understanding of Zionism and Israel," Marvin I. Schotland, president and CEO of The Foundation, said. "It's tantamount to a two-for-one payoff for a supporting organization such as ours."
But this support has also raised questions. While StandWithUs professes to be a non-partisan advocate on behalf of Israel -- one whose board bears many shades of the political spectrum and refrains from commenting on the policies of the Israeli government -- progressive Jewish leaders consider the organization to be their ideological inverse.
"A number of very good progressive Jewish organizations have applied, in some cases repeatedly, for funding from The Foundation, and they have been denied," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). "This would seem to suggest that there is particular support in the Jewish Community Foundation for the brand of Israel advocacy that is put forth by StandWithUs, which is a particularly hard-line, conservative version."
The seminal moment in the transformation of pro-Israel advocacy occurred in the summer of 1993, when the Oslo accords were finalized, and then signed, on the White House lawn.
"The Jewish community essentially had trained itself in one direction and was being asked to turn around immediately," said Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University. "It had advocated that the enemy was the PLO, and the question was, if all of the sudden [the PLO] are friends, they felt betrayed."
It was at this moment that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) broke a decades-old code and criticized the Israeli government. While most Jewish American organizations got behind the landmark peace agreement, ZOA President Morton A. Klein predicted the accords would not only fail, but that they would empower Yasser Arafat and endanger Israelis.
"They were completely wrong and we were completely right," Klein said last week. "Peace is impossible."
Seven years and 300 murdered Jews after Oslo, the Second Intifada broke out, rupturing the ground beneath American Jewry. Within one more year, 19 Muslim terrorists would hijack four American planes and inflict the worst domestic attack in U.S. history; Jews and the West found a common enemy in the Muslim world, and the crack in the Jewish community severed into two pieces -- hawks and doves, hardliners and peaceniks, right and left.
In Los Angeles, the American Jewish Congress had dissolved its local office in 1998 and reformed the following year as the PJA, a liberal organization concerned mostly with domestic issues related to social justice. But the AJCongress reopened here in 2000, bearing little resemblance to its former self.
"People who believed that we could have peace with the Palestinians were shaken out of their misguided view and realized they had no desire for peace," said Gary P. Ratner, the group's western region executive director. "Their goal was what they stated openly: The destruction of Israel, whether through the violence of groups like Hamas or through negotiations, that will weaken Israel. I think some of us woke up to the fact that Oslo was a disaster and the peace process would only lead to the destruction of Israel."
The Jewish state was under attack with no partner for peace; the old model of resolving conflict through compromise had failed. With climbing anti-Israel rhetoric on American campuses and the perception that international media had joined liberal Christians in taking up the Palestinian cause, the hardliners quickly captured the upper hand among Jewish groups in the debate on what it meant to be pro-Israel.
"It's a painful moment in Jewish life, because there isn't a place for honest and open discourse," Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told this paper in a 2002 article titled "The Silencing of the Left?" "People can have very strong differences of opinion about where to go and how to resolve things, but that discourse does not have a place right now. Rather, there is a vituperative argumentation and excoriation."
Amid this climate, major Jewish organizations slid into the shadows, abdicating their leadership.
"Whatever they said would upset somebody," Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said. "As a result, Jews who were frustrated, who wanted to defend Israel and didn't really know how or didn't have the ability, they gravitated toward The David Project and its sort of counterpart in StandWithUs."
The David Project first made headlines in 2004 with a documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," which alleged faculty intimidation of pro-Israel students at the Ivy League school.
"We have lost a generation. The Jewish leadership failed to understand the situation we were in. We thought that people who were our enemies would be thugs yelling 'kike,' instead of soft-spoken college professors saying Israel is an apartheid state," Charles Jacobs, president of the Boston-based David Project, said. "In the West today, most people don't hate the Jews because we are Christ-killers and we are racial vermin, but they hate Jews because they see us supporting what has been unfairly described as the cruelest of nations."
Just how serious the crisis on college campuses is, how deeply Israel is being vilified, how under attack Jewish students feel, is a source of great debate. Many schools, including USC, UCLA and CSUN, seem mostly immune from the anti-Israel rhetoric 51 weeks of the year. But then Palestinian Awareness Week draws tension between Muslims and Jews at UCLA, or a controversial speaker is invited to any one of those universities and concern crests. More troubling are campuses plagued by frequent protests against Israel, like one at Concordia University in Montreal six years ago that resembled a pogrom.
"There isn't as much happening on campuses as people think," said Amanda Susskind, the ADL's regional director. "But where it is happening, it is happening worse than people can imagine."
Among the schools most afflicted by Israel-bashing has been UC Irvine, where students frequently march against Israel holding signs that say "Smash the Jewish State" and "Israel, the 4th Reich." Several times a year since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, radicals like Muhammad Al-Asi and Amir Abdel Malik Ali have been invited by the Muslim Student Union to praise suicide bombers as "freedom fighters" and accuse "the Zionist-controlled media" of distorting the human-rights record of "the apartheid State of Israel," a country that is "a monkey on the American back" and "a cancerous presence."
"There is great racism against Jewish students on college campuses within the Muslim student organizations. The speakers, the programs, the handouts are all indicative of a deep hatred of Israel and, in my opinion, of a very deep racist ideology," Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, associate rabbi of UC Irvine's interfaith center, said. "I have been -- just this last week actually -- the victim of that racism by Muslim students at UC Irvine. I was heckled when I was trying to speak to a group of high school students about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was on Thursday; it was on campus. There is just a wave of hatred and racism directed at Jewish students by Muslim students. It literally permeates everything they do."
Anti-Israel attacks have appeared across the country, most often where unaffiliated speakers have been invited by pro-Palestinian campus groups. (A 44-minute StandWithUs documentary, "Tolerating Intolerance," focuses on a handful of these speakers, including Al-Asi, Malik Ali and Finkelstein.) The crisis, however, is not endemic. And even at large universities where the problem seems to be acute -- places like San Francisco State a few years ago -- many Jewish students report no problems.
"Even at San Francisco State and even in the heat of this," said Seth Brysk, who was the Hillel director there and is now executive director of the American Jewish Committee's L.A. chapter, "I had Jewish students say to me, 'Why are you making such a big deal about this? I've never had a problem with anti-Semitism.'"
Roz Rothstein doesn't believe an unstoppable crisis is racing across academia. But she thinks a pro-Palestinian agenda in favor of the end of the Jewish state is simmering below the surface. And she wasn't willing to wait until it was too late.
"We are not the victims, and we do not want to be the victims. We are strong enough to say 'never again,'" Rothstein said. "I didn't create bus bombings. I was minding my own business before 2000. I was raising a family; I wasn't working for the Museum of Tolerance or the ADL. This isn't about anti-Semitism. This is about radical Islam creating a society of little fundamentalists that have radical intentions."
Rothstein, 55, sat in her undecorated L.A. office on the second-floor of an industrial building, a location the group doesn't disclose for fear of violence. A handful of boxes were stacked on top of, and in front of, three large bookcases and a smaller one filled with multiple copies of "The Israelis" by Donna Rosenthal, "Exodus" by Leon Uris, "Myths & Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict" by Mitchell Bard and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History & Culture." These aren't part of Rothstein's personal collection -- that shelf includes Steven Emerson's "American Jihad" and Jimmy Carter's "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" -- but are used to seed libraries with books that positively represent Israel -- more than 3,500 locations so far.
Her focus is divided between disseminating pro-Israel information in the Western world and opposing what she called "the hate training of the Palestinian children." Strongly influenced by the fact that both parents and her stepfather were survivors, Rothstein draws parallels between indoctrination of Arab children and the Hitler Youth.
"How did they do it? They did it with the same cartoons and hate training that we see today in Arab countries," she said, using her computer to log onto standwithus.com. She pulled up a flyer comparing anti-Semitic cartoons in Nazi Germany with those found in Arab papers -- a giant spider bearing the Magen David, a child being slaughtered in ritualistic baking, a grotesque Jew being kicked off a cliff.
"How do you get people to hate? Use things that were successful. The Nazis got Europe to hate the Jews," she said. "So they use their model and they do it all over."
Rothstein is not only the public face of StandWithUs, but its core energy. She started the organization with her husband and Esther Renzer, a like-minded woman who serves as the board president, and is widely credited with its meteoric rise, something admired by both critics and supporters. "Their success, in no small part, is a testament to the dynamic leadership of Roz Rothstein, who is a creative and entrepreneurial executive, not to mention zealous in her love and advocacy of Israel," said Schotland, of the Jewish Community Foundation.
She is motivated by a deep conviction that avoiding conflict is the worst strategy for the Jewish people. In summer 2006, Rothstein joined the campaign to strip an L.A. County Commission on Human Relations award from Maher Hathout, a founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who had called Israel an "apartheid state" run by "butchers." Though Hathout got to keep the award after a month of contentious public hearings and news articles probing the Egyptian immigrant's past, Rothstein said she was proud of their efforts.
"If you Google him, then you will not see that he received an award he shouldn't have, but that he was a controversial guy who attended Hezbollah rallies and told Muslims they should not communicate with Israel," Rothstein said.
"Two years ago," she said, "the Presbyterian Church nearly voted to pull $7 billion in investments out of Israel -- $7 billion. Do you know why that happened? Neglect. Our neglect of the defamation of Jews or Israel will never amount to anything good."
Read Brad A. Greenberg's The God Blog for the latest on Finklestein's local reception committee -- including the Jewish Defense League.