LOS ANGELES – Of all the pro-Israel forces active on U.S. college campuses today, none has poured as much energy, resources and sheer audacity into the battle for the hearts and minds of young Americans as StandWithUs, headquartered here in Southern California.
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And perhaps none has turned up the heat on the Israel-Palestinian debate at universities quite this high, for better or worse, or used such controversial tactics.
From a basement operation founded 15 years ago and run by a handful of volunteers, StandWithUs has expanded into a global enterprise with 18 offices on three continents, a multimillion-dollar budget and a social media presence (up to 100 million interactions on Facebook each week, according to its CEO) that has left other institutions engaged in advocacy work on behalf of the Jewish state – including Israel’s own government – gaping in awe.
If any individual deserves credit for turning Israel’s image problems abroad into a cause célèbre, it’s Roz Rothstein, the co-founder and chief executive officer of StandWithUs. With the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement gaining traction among young progressive Americans in recent years, the organization created by this middle-aged family therapist stands out today as a most formidable presence on the other side.
From distributing pamphlets and “fact sheets” to organizing pro-Israel lectures and events to taking Israeli army veterans on cross-country tours, StandWithUs has established a presence difficult to ignore on American college campuses – even though it is not a student organization. Beyond providing resources to students and helping them with programming, it also funds its own network of “fellows” and other supporters at institutions of higher learning around the country, who serve as its “eyes and ears” – to quote the organization – on campus.
These foot soldiers are trained to use cameras, videos and even robots to document anti-Israel events on campus. They are taught to warn anti-Israel demonstrators when their disruptions may be in violation of the law. They are sometimes planted at events held by anti-Israel groups, where their presence, whether intentionally or not, provokes ugly outbursts that ultimately serve their cause.
They also gather intelligence in real time on upcoming divestment motions and other anti-Israel activities on campus so that they are not caught off guard when such things become public. In recent years, StandWithUs has also financed special training programs for Jewish high-school students to ensure they are ready to face off with Israel’s detractors the minute they set foot on campus.
But for some Jewish activists who have spent decades on American campuses, StandWithUs and organizations like it may be overstepping their bounds.
“Something basic that they don’t understand is that if you’re paternalistic and you’re coming in to defend the students – you’re actually making the situation worse because the students don’t learn to stand up for themselves, and they begin to feel that they’re being manipulated,” says David Biale, a distinguished professor of Jewish history at the University of California – Davis, and a supporter of the Open Hillel movement.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who served as director of Hillel at UCLA for four decades, concurs. Not referring to any one organization specifically, he says: “We have people out there who want to impose their will on the students and run their lives, and that’s bound to fail. A lot of what they’re after is getting publicity and making something happen, and in this sort of game, the students have become pawns.”
Yet Rothstein maintains that when StandWithUs was first launched in 2001, its founders had no intention of operating on college campuses, and it was not she who came after the students, but rather, they who came after her.
“When the kids started hearing about out work, they started knocking on our door very briskly,” recounts Rothstein in an interview with Haaretz. “They wanted me to physically go to their campuses and see for myself what was going on because they felt I’d know what to do, and they didn’t think anybody else got it. I went to see what they were concerned about, and I could see we had a massive problem on our hands.”
'Life of its own'
What persuaded a mother of three living the good life in Los Angeles to put everything aside and take up arms in the battle for Israel’s good name?
The turning point, says Rothstein, was the start of the second intifada in 2000, when she got fed up with what she believed to be the distorted media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“They’d show the full faces of Palestinians mourning their dead, but only the tops of heads of Israelis,” she recounts. “And it was like, really? You couldn’t get a picture of the faces? They didn’t want to look at the camera, or is this deliberate?”
She and her husband Jeremy decided to host a dinner at their home for about 50 local community leaders – from the Anti-Defamation League, Federation and rabbis of all denominations – to discuss how to respond to the turning tides against Israel.
“I kept asking them why no one is raising their voice against what’s going on, and nobody had an answer,” she recalls. “Eventually, we reached the conclusion there was no organization with the resources or the manpower to explain Israel. So we decided to create our own.”
StandWithUs was co-founded by Rothstein and Esther Renzer, a neighbor from Los Angeles, who today serves as president of the board.
“Within a year, the whole thing took on a life of its own, and I decided to give up my practice and devote myself to it full time,” says Rothstein. So did her husband, a marketing specialist by profession, who today serves alongside his wife as chief operating officer. (They currently rank among the highest-paid executives in the Jewish nonprofit world.)
Her passion for Israel, acknowledges Rothstein, didn’t blossom in a void. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, growing up, she was very involved in Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement.
“The Zionism they spark in Bnei Akiva is pretty profound,” she muses. Although raised Modern Orthodox, Rothstein, 63, leads a less stringent lifestyle today. “I’d say we’re traditional,” she says. “I don’t like to work on Shabbat and I try to go to shul here and there.”
Rothstein insists that StandWithUs is an apolitical organization, and therefore, does not endorse one solution to end the conflict over another. “We don’t take a position on much of anything,” she says. “Instead, we inform.” StandWithUs especially does not like being labeled, as it often is, as a right-wing organization.
Yet when prodded, Rothstein does acknowledge her soft spot for the settlement movement.
“It’s an emotional issue for people who grew up in Bnei Akiva,” she says. “And yes, I do have an emotional attachment to Judea and Samaria. It’s where the Jewish people began, and I would be disingenuous if I told you I didn’t care.”
Although StandWithUs provides generous funding for programming by Jewish campus organizations like Hillel, not everything passes muster. Her pet peeve these days is Breaking the Silence, an organization of former combat soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who speak out against the occupation.
“We’re vehemently opposed to people coming in and lying to the students and would certainly not give money to Hillel for programs that sponsor Breaking the Silence,” she says. (Breaking the Silence has long refuted claims by its detractors that it misconstrues the facts.)
Nor does Rothstein have much patience for J Street U, a pro-Israel student group that also opposes the settlement movement. “They literally lobby the government here against Israeli policy,” she notes with disgust.
Many of the speakers sponsored by StandWithUs at its various events are mainstream with a center-right leaning. But not all.
Last month, the organization hosted an event at a Conservative synagogue in Oakland in honor of actress and comedian Roseanne Barr, who, following a radical political transformation, has emerged as the new darling of extreme right-wing pro-Israel groups. When asked about the decision to honor a woman known for labeling anyone critical of Israel a Nazi, Rothstein claimed to be ignorant of the celebrity’s no-holds-barred style.
“You would need to show me examples of what you’re saying,” she says. “But I did hear her speak once in Las Vegas, and she’s very funny.”
The identity of a key funder of StandWithUs has also cemented views held by many that the organization as politically right. Adam Milstein, a Los Angeles-based, Israeli-American real estate investor and a major donor, has close ties with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a prominent supporter of the Republican Party and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Milstein also serves on the board of StandWithUs.
Asked whether Adelson had contributed to her organization, Rothstein said: “To some degree, but not on an annual basis. Hopefully in the future, he will.”
Although StandWithUs has partnered with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on various programs, Rothstein flatly denied reports that it has received Israeli government funding. “We couldn’t take that money even if we wanted to,” she said, “because we have 501C status, which doesn’t allow it.”
According to Rothstein, StandWithUs raised $11 million from individual donors and foundations in 2015 – a 20-percent increase over the previous year.
Some recent initiatives include the establishment of a new center in Jerusalem, just across from the landmark King David Hotel, where – strange as it may sound – Israelis get hands-on training from Americans in Israeli advocacy work. In addition, StandWithUs recently created a new legal department with a team of 80 attorneys who provide pro-bono services to students, faculty and Jewish community members confronting anti-Semitism, or what appears to be anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism.
“In just one year, this new department has already dealt with 100 cases,” boasts Rothstein, adding that its creation is part of a concerted effort to “get up to snuff with strategies used by the other side.”