(December 9, 2022, JNS Wire)
StandWithUs (SWU) welcomed more than 600 Israel supporters of all ages, faiths and political persuasions to its annual “Festival of Lights” gala held on Dec. 4 in Los Angeles. Celebrating the 21st year anniversary, this year’s theme for the non-profit, non-partisan organization was “Standing Together Against Antisemitism.” The gala featured world renowned speakers and showcased students who, despite many challenges, made a difference in their schools and communities through their courage, leadership, and support of Israel and the Jewish people.
The event was live-streamed reaching tens of thousands more people from around the world during and after the show. https://www.standwithus.com/fol-gala
Once again, it was co-sponsored by board members Ellie and Bruce Lederman and Debbie and Naty Saidoff, whose generosity brings everyone together each year to showcase the growth and international work of StandWithUs. All proceeds raised at the Festival of Lights galas are directed toward its mission of Israel education and combating antisemitism. As in previous years, Naty Saidoff conducted the fundraising portion of the evening.
Noa Tishby, Israel’s Special Envoy for Antisemitism, was the emcee and also interviewed keynote speaker, award-winning journalist, Matti Friedman. Comedian Elon Gold opened the event putting the audience in a festive mood with his jokes about Jews and current events. As in previous galas, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot sang the Star Spangled Banner and SWU National Board member Alon Miller sang Hatikvah.
Co-founded in 2001 by its CEO Roz Rothstein, its COO Jerry Rothstein and its international president Esther Renzer and headquartered in Los Angeles, StandWithUs is a leader in the fight against antisemitism and in educating about Israel on campuses, in high schools, in middle schools, on social media, and in the community. With chapters and programs throughout the United States, in Israel, Canada, the UK and Brazil, StandWithUs combats misinformation and promotes accurate information about Israel daily in different languages to millions of people worldwide. In 2022, thanks to the generosity of Rita and Steve Emerson, StandWithUs launched offices in the Netherlands and in South Africa.
Held at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Social Club and Theater, a huge graphic of the event illuminated on a wall, looked down as guests dined from a selection of gourmet stations of dishes and after the show, a dessert reception by Pat’s restaurant. The venue allows for both indoor and outdoor seating. There was a silent auction filled with exciting items, including two round-trip tickets to Israel on ElAl airlines. Roz spoke of the partnership with the airline including training its pilots and flight attendants to speak about Israel during their layovers as part of the “Ambassadors” program. As in previous years, the David Kates orchestra entertained the guests during dinner with traditional Israeli songs including “Jerusalem of Gold.”
As they made their way to the theater for the show, guests had to pass through a hallway filled with anti-Israel vitriol, mimicking the terrible slogans that students are dealing with on far too many campuses. At the end of the anti-Israel hallway, guests were greeted by SWU high school Leventhal Interns, campus Emerson Fellows, student volunteers and staff waving flags and singing Israeli songs including “Am Yisrael Chai,” holding a sign that said: “You’ve Found StandWithUs,” proving once again, that there is a light in the darkness.
Welcoming the guests, Israeli-American actress and author Noa Tishby spoke about the worldwide rise of antisemitism we are all aware of, but especially on college campuses. To illustrate this, she showed a video of the recent visit she made to UC Berkeley where a coalition of student groups in the Law School passed a resolution disallowing Jewish speakers to their events. She decided to see “for myself” and set up a table. Noa was subjected to 4 hours of harassment “for thinking differently from what was the accepted norm which is denouncing Israel.” Her video showed misinformed students refusing to debate, screaming at Noa for having a different viewpoint about Israel. One student even told her that she has blood on her hands and cursed at her for being “the stupidest person in the world for defending Israel.” Noa told the audience that even though she is an adult, and served in the Israeli army, it was very threatening to be there. She made the point about how difficult this must be for students who feel marginalized and attacked for their love of Israel. They need support, legal and strategic, and they need to feel safe. This is where StandWithUs comes in.
Roz, Jerry and Esther then honored three extraordinary “Leaders of Tomorrow” who courageously stood up to antisemitism at their schools, with StandWithUs’ coveted “Star of David” award.
Eleanor is in 8th grade in a private middle school. She created a new club “Juice for Jews” feeling represented in her school for the first time. At the beginning of the first meeting, the principal told the students that “Jews” was offensive and has negative associations. Eleanor says they were being “shamed for our identity.” With the support of StandWithUs behind her, she expressed her feelings to the faculty, and they asked her to present at a student Town Hall. Although she had experienced antisemitism including her peers telling her that Israel is murdering children and is not entitled to their land, Eleanor did not feel comfortable to lead her peers. She turned to StandWithUs.
Statistics prove that Holocaust education is dwindling in schools and Eleanor realized that in the nine years she attended, the school did not offer a class on the Holocaust. It does now, thanks to her activism. Says Eleanor, “StandWithUs has enabled me to advocate with strength, knowing that I have an organization supporting and encouraging me.”
StandWithUs Middle School Education and Programming director Mina Rush said that it is because of incidents like these that the IsraelLINK middle school curriculum was created. The program promotes and elevates Israel education within Jewish day schools and supplementary middle school programs across North America. Working directly with teachers and school administrators, a custom plan is crafted to integrate Israel Studies into a well-rounded Jewish education. The IsraelLINK team creates high-quality educational resources, runs teacher training, and provides ongoing support to inspire 21st-century learners.
UCLA student Gabby Lasry has been part of all four StandWithUs middle school, high school and campus programs. An avid supporter of Israel with a love for the Jewish people, Gabby was horrified when she heard people say that Israel should not exist. Gabby admits she did not know how to respond initially, and then discovered StandWithUs’ Teen Leadership Program for high school students. After graduating the program, she went on to become a StandWithUs Kenneth Leventhal High School Intern. At UCLA, Gabby found, unfortunately, that there is a lack of action by the administration and student body regarding anti-Israel bias. Gabby became a SWU Emerson Fellow. She credits the programs with giving her the leadership skills and the tools and education necessary to successfully confront these allegations and anti-Israel events. It also gave her confidence, knowing that SWU is always there to guide and support her. Gabby puts on well-attended and compelling programs as the events director for UCLA Bruins for Israel and is actively involved in student government.
Newly hired StandWithUs Israel Educator and Outreach Manager Noah Shufutinsky made aliyah and is now working at SWU’s Katz Education Center in Jerusalem. He decried Kanye West’s Hitler comments and spoke about antisemitism in general on a recent broadcast of i24 News. Noah credits SWU for helping him confront boycott campaigns at his alma mater, George Washington University in DC. As he told the story, Noah, AKA “Westside Gravy,” a hip hop artist, the screen opened and he began his well-received rap song “Diaspora.” The music blends social consciousness with his lyrics, reflecting Noah’s mixed heritage as a black Russian Jew. The audience clapped to the rhythm and loved when Noah affirmed that he is a proud part of the Diaspora, as a Jew. He is excited to begin addressing the many people and groups from around the world that visit the StandWithUs Katz Education Center each year.
Roz Rothstein then took the stage. She asked the attendees how many had experienced or knew of someone who experienced antisemitism. Not surprisingly, nearly every hand went up. Roz, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, said that people like Kanye West and Bella and Gigi Hadid are constantly disparaging Israel to their millions of followers, thereby helping to normalize misinformation and assumptions about Israel. She also talked about rising antisemitism in high schools and colleges. College students report that their free speech is threatened, and they feel marginalized. She noted that Israel is a big part of the fabric of Jewish identity for most Jews. She talked about how Jews throughout history, always get trapped and blamed for whatever economic or social situation there is. Jews are convenient scapegoats, a mutating virus of the world’s oldest hatred. People stand up against other kinds of bigotry, but far too often, bigotry against Jews is given a free pass.
Roz then took an optimistic turn. She said that StandWithUs is fighting for the Jewish people, but it was not always so. 21 years ago, Roz, Jerry and Esther and others saw rising antisemitism, media telling half-truths about people being murdered in Israel leading people to blame Israel for it. Students on college campuses were being bullied and StandWithUs had no way to help them at the time, because we were a new organization. Now, there is so much help people can avail themselves of, including the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, Center for Combating Antisemitism, the student programs, research, strategy, guidance, the Holocaust Education Center, social media that reaches millions of people each week, and Rabbis United, among many others. She said that SWU actively takes on the challenges; it’s our priority and it matches the priority of everyone who attended the event. She pointed to a photo of Ido Avigal, a 5 year-old boy murdered by a Hamas rocket in his home in Sderot last year. Roz was clear that SWU will not give Jewish bigotry a free pass and teach the world, including the UN Human Rights Council and its Commission of Inquiry, the truth, even if we have to say it thousands of times. For example, SWU is working tirelessly to ensure that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism is adopted, most recently testifying at the West Hollywood and Los Angeles City Council hearings.
Matti stated that the AP had more than 40 staffers covering the people of Israel and the Palestinian territories, significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, India, or in sub-Saharan Africa with billions of people. It was higher than the total number of news-gathering employees in all the countries where the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” eventually erupted. This makes Israel the most important country on earth to cover. It appears that journalism is often no longer about writing news stories, but about spreading hate.
Matti said that Hamas controls the narrative in the region. For example, during a battle between Israel and Hamas, a very capable journalist from Gaza reported that Hamas is hiding its armaments in civilian locations and listing Hamas operative deaths as civilian deaths. Matti put that information in a story that was edited by Hamas a day later. Matti was ordered to remove that item, and he had to comply. Israel must consistently be viewed as the bad guy in all news coverage about Gaza, and saying that Hamas hides weapons in civilian areas tells a different story, which cannot be told. He summarized that despite it all, he is hopeful about the future because people are taking this seriously, including StandWithUs.
Roz emphasized the importance of StandWithUs, working around the clock and around the world, with more than 170 international employees, fighting antisemitism and supporting Israel. She thanked the audience for their support and told them, “you can sleep better knowing that StandWithUs is working to face these challenges on all of our behalf.”