With its largest and most diverse array of students yet, the nation’s most active student-based Israel education program, StandWithUs UK’s Emerson Fellowship, kicked off with the highest intensity training conference I could have ever imagined.
Starting nine days ago, the powerful and fascinating three-day conference hosted a range of keynote speakers, including Dame Louise Ellman MP, the Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev, and Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama UK and Muslims Against Anti-Semitism.
“It is vital we all work together to oppose antisemitism and anti-Zionism” commented Louise Ellman after the event. “StandWithUs does excellent work, and I was pleased to meet so many committed young people at its conference”.
Yet, although chiefly designed to support Israel by tackling false and prejudiced narratives, and to combat anti-Zionism on campus, the nature of the fellowship may surprise you.
From lively debates around Israeli control of the West Bank, to vigorous (albeit always amicable) back-and-forths over the morality of the IDF’s Gaza interventions, it was soon clear to me during the conference that StandWithUs UK’s approach to Israel education was radically different from the usual likudnik hasbara and one-sided monologues.
So what exactly is it all about? What’s the agenda? In one sentence: To support Israel’s legitimacy, whilst diligently delineating fact from opinion. It was precisely this approach that attracted so many of us, from all sorts of different political opinions, backgrounds and upbringings, Jewish and non-Jewish, to join the fellowship in the first place.
“I’m a Muslim by background, and obviously having grown up in a Muslim household, the perspective on Israel, and Israel-Palestine, has been very different to that of, maybe, your average Jewish kid who’s grown up in a pro-Israel bubble” explained Ali Drabu, a 22-year-old Emerson Fellow from St. Andrews University.
“It was really interesting to be here and listen to all the different perspectives, and meet all the different people, listen to them, and to learn from them at the conference”.
Describing the fellowship, Jonathan Farrell, Director of Student Affairs at StandWithUs UK, told me: “StandWithUs is a non-partisan organisation. We advocate neither a one- nor a two-state solution, and we don’t demand of our students to take any stance on the issue.
“Our aim, and our hope, is that by the end of the fellowship, our students will be walking away from our program feeling confident in the basic foundational knowledge of what Israel is, what it means to the Jewish people, and how to communicate that knowledge.
“As part of that, we also want to expose our students to encounters with people of different opinions, that challenge them in their perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
Perhaps the demonstrators from Na’amod wouldn’t have behaved the way they did had they known what StandWithUs UK actually stood for.
In any case, as anti-Israel sentiment and hard-left antisemitism continues to grow in our universities, all the new UK Emerson Fellows, myself included, look forward to tackling the problems head on; constructively, politely, intellectually, and importantly, with all the nuance necessary to facilitate genuine, honest and open discussion.