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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Israel advocacy group joins Canadian campuses

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From left are Meryle Kates, executive director of Stand With Us Canada, and Roz Rothstein, CEO of Stand With Us. [Greg Tjepkema photo]

Anti-Israel sentiment on campus is growing and creating a hostile environment, and more resources are needed for pro-Israel students to combat these claims, Stand With Us CEO Roz Rothstein says.

The Los Angeles-based Israel education organization is expanding to Canadian campuses this year in hopes of helping to fight what Rothstein described in a phone interview when she was in Toronto recently as an increasingly serious situation on campuses.

“[Stand With Us] will work with other organizations and bring them all together with just one objective: to give a message to change the narrative and the lies about Israel,” said Meryle Kates, executive director of Stand With Us Canada.

The American organization, which has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and France, recently opened its first Canadian location in Toronto, bringing the total number of chapters to 17.

Rothstein said campuses in Canada are halfway between the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of the success of their anti-Israel campaigns. In the U.K., she said, Jewish students might be afraid to wear a Jewish star as a necklace. In the United States, anti-Israel ideas haven’t taken hold nearly as much.

“They try to use the system and free speech… to destroy Israel’s image,” Rothstein said, adding that anti-Israel Americans are pushing to be more effective, but their efforts aren’t working quite as well as in Canada.

Several student unions on Canadian campuses have adopted anti-Israel stances – most recently at the University of Toronto and York University.

These endorsements are “meaningless on the campus,” Rothstein said. “It’s not going to do anything, but what it does is bring a very negative, hostile dialogue to the campus.”

Hillel has protested that some of these resolutions have passed because anti-Israel organizations or individuals add them to agendas about three days before a council meeting, giving pro-Israel students no time to respond.

This isn’t always the case, however. For example, York University’s graduate students’ association representatives told The CJN the item was placed on the agenda at least a week before the meeting, though Kates said Hillel disputes that assertion.

Regardless, Rothstein said last-minute additions are often used, and Stand With Us knows to expect this and will try to prepare students to be ready when it happens. “It could come as no surprise,” she said.

Anti-Israel students paint Israel as the biggest human rights abuser on the planet, Rothstein said, forcing a conversation onto campus that puts pro-Israel students on the defensive.

To respond to campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) endorsements, Rothstein said Stand With Us will work with existing organizations, supporting them in whatever they decide to do.

York’s graduate students’ union president Carolyn Hibbs told The CJN motions that aim to reconsider passed resolutions require a supermajority – in this case, a two-thirds majority – in order to pass.

The main goals of the Toronto office are to give students a liaison to discuss campus issues, and a place to get funding, speakers, materials and guidance, Rothstein said, “so that they can be involved and become leaders on campus.”

The organization plans to distribute materials to fight Israeli Apartheid Week, the annual series of lectures and events on university campuses across Canada that focuses primarily on promoting the BDS campaign. Rothstein said these events on Canadian campuses are often darker and more aggressive than on American campuses.

“We’re going to be shipping a huge display that talks about Israel’s size and diversity,” Rothstein said, adding that it will also have information about Hamas and its charter.  She said Stand With Us is important because it is entirely focused on teaching about Israel.

“Everybody else’s mission statement has maybe a little bit of teaching Israel,” Rothstein said, “but that’s all we do.”

She said the organization is the largest producer of material about Israel, which it hopes will help pro-Israel students fight for the hearts of other students on campus.

“What I’ve realized being here is you have a lot of caring and passionate people and organizations,” she said, but she’s concerned that too many students only here the anti-Israel side of the story.

“I think Stand With Us will be a nice addition to the tapestry to help combat the issues we’re seeing here,” she said.

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