This past weekend, more than 500 activists from across the globe, including 350 high school and college students, gathered in Los Angeles for a conference on anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias, put on by the Israel education group StandWithUs.
The 3-day event provided students with the opportunity to share their love for Israel and freely discuss the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias they’ve experienced in academia. This year’s conference was more about coming up with solutions than airing grievances.
Committed to fostering an environment where everyone feels valued, the conference included Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and LGBT community members.
Despite all the differences, everybody was respectful and eager to listen, speak, and discuss. Deputy Consul General Eitan Weiss, from the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, spoke about the challenges of defending Israel, while StandWithUs CEO and co-founder Roz Rothstein spoke about how BDS has become the new anti-Semitism. Knesset Member Sharren Haskel (Likud) described how her passion for fighting anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism inspired her to become a combat soldier for the IDF.
Anti-Semitism in Europe, especially France, was also discussed, including an ADL report of a 106 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents at non-Jewish elementary, middle, and high schools.
Nicole Feder, a University of Michigan Business major, talked about how anti-Zionism has influenced the Michigan campus over the past 12 years. She has found it difficult to convince the student body that just because she and others are Zionists, it doesn’t mean they are against human rights.
Matt Stein, a sophomore at Swarthmore College, told the audience he doesn’t see BDS movements or violent protests at his school, but finds himself in an environment that is anti-Israel by default. He talked about a notorious pro-BDS professor who is spreading misinformation to hundreds of students each semester. One has to be very careful, he cautioned, when planning or even attending a pro-Israel event at Swarthmore.
In a breakout session dealing with anti-Semitism versus legitimate criticism of Israel, speakers Rena Nasar and Rayna Exelbierd told the audience that the line is crossed when people engage in the three D’s – demonization, de-legitimization, and double standards. They encouraged the audience to engage with the 70 to 80 percent of those who are undecided about Israel since the 10 percent who hate Israel won’t change their minds no matter what.
In another breakout session titled “What is Intersectionality?” it was explained that although all oppression isn’t the same, it’s all connected, stressing that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives. The event’s most touching moment came when an African-American student stood up, spoke about how relations with Jews and the African-American community are strained, and emotionally concluded that things had to change since both groups have so much in common and can accomplish a lot together if they put aside their differences.
Another presentation dealt with the BDS movement’s effect on the entertainment industry. While Roger Waters has become their poster-child, teen pop sensation Lorde was recently pressured into canceling an Israeli gig. She is an exception to the rule as artists such as Alicia Keyes, Lady Gaga, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and Bon Jovi have all played shows in the Jewish state.
One of the most powerful sessions was about using the law to stand up to hate. A former high school student talked about standing up to an administration that apparently saw nothing wrong with a group of students “celebrating” a school-sponsored international diversity festival by shredding some Israeli flags and covering others with the Iranian or Palestinian flag. Although he was graduating and could have easily just “moved on,” the young man spent much of his senior year making sure the students and administrators who accepted this behavior were held responsible.
In a session on social media, StandWithUs Digital Director Emily Schrader explained the importance of using social media to fight anti-Israeli bias. She noted that arguing against baseless comments or liking and reposting positive comments all help. She also talked about rare situations in which engagement didn’t help.
Also explored were the reclaiming of Israel’s story, the challenges and opportunities of social justice movements, and how BDS affects certain religious movements. After each session, students gathered with friends in animated conversation about what they had learned and how they would apply it in their communities.
Early Monday afternoon, all the students met together for one last time in the main room before catching their flights, rides, etc. After doing a version of Zumba, which symbolized everybody moving together for a common purpose, the students discussed eventual peace in the Middle East and all the insights and tools they were able to take away from the conference. They walked out smiling, laughing, singing, and ready to take what they learned, back to campus.
Daryl Deino is a freelance journalist, technology writer and actor and who has appeared on shows such as Parks and Recreation and Two Broke Girls. He is a contributor to the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.
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