StandwithUs Fellows from the IDC Herzliya Campus
How many times have you watched an English language news program and despaired at the way in which Israel’s case was being presented by the country’s spokesperson? And how often do you feel utterly fed up with the shenanigans of our politicians, and pessimistic about the future?
Israel’s inadequate hasbara (public advocacy) was particularly evident after the beginning of the second intifada. While many English speakers in Israel joined newly-formed nonprofit grassroots advocacy groups in an attempt to achieve some balance in how the conflict was being reported, similar groups were established abroad, where there was additional concern about the anti-Semitic tone that had begun to appear in the media and on university campuses. In 2001 one such nonprofit group, StandWithUs, was founded in California to counter these trends, and in 2005 the organization opened StandWithUs international in Israel.
StandWithUs International’s educational activities in Israel include hosting Birthright trips, organizing global conferences and running the Ambassadors Club at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), at which students have the opportunity to hear top speakers at fortnightly lectures. StandWithUs International’s main focus in Israel, however, is its annual Fellowship program. Established in 2006, the programs seek to overcome the dual challenges of Israel’s distorted image throughout the world, and the apathy that is felt by the country’s young generation towards leadership. Hundreds of students from the Hebrew University, Bar Ilan, Tel-Aviv University, the Technion, Haifa University, the IDC, Sapir College and Ben Gurion University of the Negev apply to become Fellows. The candidate are evaluated according to their linguistic ability, community and campus activism, and their knowledge of world affairs.
“The program begins by familiarizing Fellows with the challenges outside of Israel, so they understand the need for strong leaders who will become articulate diplomats and spokespeople for their country” explains Michael Dickson, the Director of StandWithUs International. During the one year Fellowship, the students learn debating skills; they learn how to run campaigns, build coalitions and work in teams, and they learn how to understand the workings of the media. Each campus takes on a project and receives a limited budget to help implement it.
“For their project, the Haifa/Technion Fellows took their natural leaning towards technology to build an Internet social platform called ‘Jewgether’ (www.jewgether.org) which aims to bring Jews around the world closer to Israel and to Israelis,” relates Dickson. “Having raised funds, they are about to launch a flat-share program which links Jews from different countries to hundreds of potential hosts. In addition to the personal connections being created, the program greatly assists potential visitors to Israel. This is one to watch – and it looks set to become a viable business prospect too.”
When they have completed their Fellowships, the students join the program’s alumni network, through which they are given the opportunity to exercise and maintain skills they have acquired. Around twenty of the most promising alumni are invited to go on local and international internships. “Generally, alumni move into diverse and prestigious areas,” says Dickson. “We have a fellow working in Avi Dichter’s office; one is an emissary in China; another is on a long-term internship at the Red Cross in Geneva; another is working for an Israeli Leadership institute, and we have Fellows studying in Harvard and working at the Ministry of Tourism.”
Dickson came on aliyah from the UK in 2006. Has his own notion of putting Israel’s case across changed since then? “I think I am more aware that the world views Israel through an entirely different prism. Israelis too often live in a bubble – understandably – and expect that what they see on their own news programs makes news worldwide. Sabra Israelis need reminding that to give an effective message to non-Israelis, they need to understand their mindset and culture, and the nuance of communication. On a more personal note, I find I now internalize the news in a different way. I am all too aware that I am an Israeli by choice, and that I have effectively signed up my baby son to the army. Communicating the human face of Israel has become ever more important to me.”
StandWithUs has produced numerous publications, including “Israel 101”, a 44-page brochure that provides a mine of helpful information about every possible aspect of Israel, and a range of Israel@60 leaflets to “communicate the human face of Israel and to highlight the country’s achievements. It seems to me that these publications should be required reading for every Israeli, so that even the most despondent and jaded among us will be reminded just how much there is to celebrate.”
COUNTERING NEGATIVE NEWS STORIES
On any given day, there is almost certain to be a negative story about Israel in the news. I asked Michael Dickson how a StandWithUs alum would counter hostile questioning about one such story that appeared at the time of this writing: the growing archive of footage being filmed by Palestinians – with cameras given to them by B’Tselem (the Israeli human rights organization) – of alleged abuse by Israeli soldiers.
Dickson put this to Lior, an alum from Hebrew University. Lior wrote the following response: “Encounters between Israelis and Palestinians occur literally thousands of times a day, many of them under complicated and sometimes life-threatening conditions. And yet, out of all these encounters, a mere handful would provide worthy footage for B’Tselem’s campaign. Are such filmed encounters serious? Yes they are, and that is exactly why each of them is investigated by the IDF. Are they a true representation of these countless interactions on a daily basis? Absolutely not. They are a grim and unfortunate result of people being put under unnatural conditions, where their safety is jeopardized. The international media’s focus should be on what causes this reality. It is Hamas that should be put under the spotlight. Hamas must stop strangling both Israelis and Palestinians so that a new reality may be formed whereby encounters between the two people will be joyful and enriching, rather than complicated and dangerous.”