StandWithUs (SWU) was established in 2001 during the Palestinian terrorist onslaught against Israel known as the Second Intifada. Recognizing the lack of available solid information coupled with the promotion of misinformation, SWU’s founders — including CEO Roz Rothstein, COO Jerry Rothstein, President Esther Renzer, and other community leaders — realized that a key to winning the war for hearts and minds was education.
Since its inception, the non-partisan organization has maintained its mission statement — “Education Is the Road to Peace” — and its focus on supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism. Headquartered in Los Angeles, StandWithUs has chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Israel, United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and the Netherlands.
During the early years of StandWithUs, Jewish and pro-Israel college students began reaching out to it with calls for help. They were upset by what they saw on campus, and felt lost as to how to respond. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), joined by other groups, including Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP), were hosting antisemitic speakers and bringing hateful displays such as “apartheid walls” to their schools during “Israel Apartheid Week” to create ill-will toward Israel and anyone who backs it.
Around 2010, these groups began introducing student government resolutions promoting antisemitic lies and calling for boycotts of Israel. SWU responded immediately by creating educational materials, holding conferences, and galvanizing student leaders while teaching them context and ways to react.
StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein spoke this week with Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Editor-in-Chief Barney Breen-Portnoy about the organization’s important work fighting contemporary Jew-hatred on campus.
What issues are Jewish college students most concerned with today?
Jewish college students are facing a real crisis on campus today, where they are made to feel marginalized and isolated from campus life, just because of their religious or national identity. Many are being bombarded by frequent and pervasive manifestations of antisemitism, ranging from discrimination, verbal harassment, vandalism of Jewish dorms or communal spaces and religious symbols, physical threats, bias in the classroom, the spread of hateful stereotypes, Nazi imagery, and harmful conspiracy theories. Students may feel discouraged to report these incidents, either fearing repercussions or lack of university response. Even when Jewish students try to introduce educational tools to help define and identify antisemitism, such as the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, their efforts are often met with resistance.
This is all compounded with severe ignorance and misinformation about Zionism, Israel, Jews, and the Middle East conflict, which can create an uncomfortable and hostile environment for the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
Jewish students want to be able to fully participate in campus life while proudly expressing core parts of their identity, including their Zionism. They shouldn’t have to choose between the two.
What is StandWithUs’s approach to addressing these concerns and countering rising campus antisemitism? Are there unique programs or initiatives you offer geared for this challenge?
StandWithUs has more than two decades of experience and expertise in successfully combating antisemitism on campus, whether through formal education, leadership training, legal action, working with like-minded organizations and administrations on the ground, and more. Whenever an incident takes place, we employ resources from multiple StandWithUs departments and experts so that the student receives comprehensive support. For example, the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department educates students about their legal rights on campus and offers pro-bono legal support to those who need it. Students enlist the aid of the SWU Center for Combating Antisemitism (CCA) to help them introduce and pass the IHRA definition on their campuses.
We work to educate and empower both Jewish and non-Jewish students to stand up against hate, vocalize their experiences with antisemitism and their personal connections to Israel, and mobilize their communities in response. We collaborate with students, faculty, and administrators to foster dialogue, promote understanding, and inspire much-needed solidarity with the Jewish community. We also offer educational programs, speakers, and materials that present accurate information about Israel, antisemitism, and the Jewish people. Students can also bring interactive programming created by SWU Holocaust Education Center to their schools and communities.
On campus, we run multiple leadership programs that energize and empower college students around the world. In 2007, we created the prestigious StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship to formalize a growing network of StandWithUs Zionist students who proudly stand up for Israel and stand firmly against antisemitism. The year-long program identifies and trains student leaders to assess their campus climate, organize impactful programs about Israel, and stand up to antisemitism in any form it comes in. Each year, the Emerson Fellowship selects and trains over 200 student leaders from 150 universities in North America and over 50 in Israel, the UK and South Africa. Upon completion, they become part of an alumni network where they can continue their activism post-college.
StandWithUs has campus regional managers throughout the U.S. and Canada, many who are alumni of the Fellowship. They provide guidance and support to any student who requests assistance, and help them gain confidence as they meet challenges head-on.
What are StandWithUs’s top priorities in its campus work?
We aim to inspire every student we meet to be proud, courageous, stand tall, and be uncompromising about who they are. We promise to stand by them as they face their challenges. We are building a global network of student leaders who are supporting each other, sharing ideas and best practices, and working together to make their universities a better, safer, and more accepting place for Jewish and other pro-Israel students.
Are you optimistic that the fight against campus antisemitism can ultimately be won?
While antisemitism is one of the oldest, most pervasive forms of hate, we believe that education is one of the most effective ways to correct misinformation and ignorance. Especially on campus, we are increasing awareness, strengthening partnerships, and empowering local communities to confront challenges together, and make a real difference. Silence is not an option in the face of hate.
We must remain vigilant, as our detractors are constantly reinventing new ways to target and defame Israel and the pro-Israel movement. While they aim to manipulate and distract, we are changing hearts and minds in rich and meaningful ways.
I am very encouraged by all our students. They demonstrate resilience, and express pride in being Jewish and of their Jewish heritage, and supporting Israel. Students in our network who aren’t Jewish express pride and courage in their support of their Jewish friends and of Israel. Our students are united, organized, fighting back and creating new and innovative initiatives. Only through a concerted effort can we hope to ultimately succeed in the fight against antisemitism.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we need to take stronger action against administrations that are reluctant to take action against antisemitic incidents in the classroom and perpetrated by anti-Israel student groups. On January 12, 2023, for example, at the request of George Washington University students, StandWithUs filed a Title VI complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against GW. It alleges a pervasive, retaliatory and discriminatory environment for Jewish and Israeli students based on repeated attacks on their identities, by a professor in the Professional Psychology Program’s mandatory diversity course. The administration took no corrective action when the students reported their experience of antisemitism in the classroom or later, when they faced retaliation for reporting it. We are pleased that OCR announced that it has opened an investigation.
What can Jewish students do to prepare themselves to handle the realities they will face on campus this coming academic year?
Jewish students can take several proactive steps to ensure that they’re prepared to not only handle these realities but also shape their college experience for the better. StandWithUs offers a variety of print materials, videos, workshops, and in-house experts that students can access to ensure that they are informed, confident, and not alone when navigating these issues on campus.
We realized in 2012 that this education needed to start much earlier than college and created the StandWithUs Kenneth Leventhal High School Internship. It offers tailored resources, programs, and mentorship to ensure that students are prepared before they even step foot on campus. We also opened a middle school department in 2015 and developed a dynamic multimedia curriculum called IsraelLINK, that connects young teens to Israel which is already being used in hundreds of schools across the United States.
Through our global network of leaders and change makers, college students are reminded that no matter what they’re facing, StandWithUs is here to help.
For more information on StandWithUs and its on-campus activities, please visit: standwithus.com/campus