Each generation of youth brings a fresh perspective to past problems, and this sentiment couldn’t be any more true regarding the nation of Israel. A complex state that’s constantly fluctuating in the public realm of opinion needs spokespeople to present its merits, mistakes, and truths. Young people have the ability to play this position perfectly.
StandWithUs is a Los Angeles based, pro-Israel organization aimed at presenting educational information regarding the middle-east country. The organization has explored different avenues regarding the education and mobilization of young folks by establishing two programs for high school and college students. According to a representative, the StandWithUs High School Internship Program is intended to “foster leadership and professional skills as well as create a campus environment where awareness about Israel is abundant through information and student organization.” The program has found great success during its six years of operating and includes 89 students spread out across North America. The StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship was founded to train college participants on how to combat divisive rhetoric towards the nation, and strategically organize with campus coalitions and institutions such as student government. SWU Emerson Fellowship is in its 10th year and boasts representation at 82 Universities throughout North America.
Locally, there’s been great impact among Twin Cities youth with advancing the program. Last week I reached out to area participants Ethan M. Less, a student at St. Paul Academy and Ruchamah Borg, a student at St. Louis Park High School about their experience with the high school program. In addition, I reached to Daniel Vlodaver who attends the University of Minnesota and is a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow.
Ethan has always been drawn to Israel, and his upbringing crafted a sense of honoring the nation for its complex history. He states his recent activism through the program has empowered his views. “Over just the first 2 months working with StandWithUs, I already feel more grounded in my support of Israel because it has given me tools to defend my core beliefs. It also helped me understand that Israel is a complicated, multifaceted country like many others. StandWithUs helped me begin to really grapple with hard-hitting conflicts such as the West Bank settlements.”
Ruchamah has felt compelled to educate others ever since her trip to Israel last summer. “I think I can help my peers understand that Israel is a very real place with very real people who live their lives just like we do,” she said. She believes her grounded outlook on everyday Israeli life can appeal to other students, stating “I think that this year I can help them understand not only Israel more, but also the people and cultures that live and thrive there, and the coexistence that’s such a beautiful aspect of Israel.” Both wish to continue to use their leadership skills within the program as well as spread their passion for Israel to fellow students.
Daniel seeks to educate college students while dispelling misconceptions or sometimes lies some may hold regarding Israel. When asked about the line between legitimate criticism and concern about Israel’s actions as opposed to outright anti-Semitism, his response was honest and thought-out. “As with any country, Israel is subject to legitimate criticism. The issue that unfortunately is becoming more and more common, is that legitimate criticism is being replaced with outright or thinly-veiled anti-Semitism.” He would go further to explain his reasoning and methodology on the issue. “The best way to distinguish between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism is through the Three D’s. The Three D’s are a guideline developed by Natan Sharansky and adopted by the U.S. Department of State, which stands for Delegitimization and Demonization of Israel and subjecting Israel to Double standards. If any of these occur in a criticism, it is by definition, anti-Semitism.” Vlodaver mentions he often needs to remind himself that most students don’t put much thought into Israel or the conflict, and even some were never educated about it. He values his teamwork with others that have been honed through the program and plans on continuing to achieve his goals.
While StandWithUs continues educating the public on Israel, using high school and college students as surrogates is a resourceful tactic. The Jewish community will always need new voices and perspectives to address age-old issues. A new generation of honest advocates for Israel can energize discussions regarding peace, missteps, and the survival of the nation. Only when youth are allowed a seat at the table can real, observable progress be made.