I was studying at Ben Gurion University in 2012 when I joined the StandWithUs Fellowship. I thought it would be a great opportunity, as it sold itself as a prestigious public diplomacy program and appeared to welcome peace activists like myself.
This is why they invited me in 2014 to join their delegation to the University of Cape Town in South Africa for Israel Apartheid Week.
I agreed because I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about both sides of the conflict: the ‘pro-Palestinian’ side which considered my country, Israel, to be a uniquely evil entity, and the ‘pro-Israel’ side presented by StandWithUs, which talked up Israel’s accomplishments in business and high tech.
What StandWithUs did not talk about, at all, was the biggest elephant in the room: Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
I could not accept this and when I raised it during the trip I was told by a South African affiliate of StandWithUs that, “We, as diaspora Jews cannot criticise the Israeli government, no matter what it does”. This bothered me deeply.
StandWithUs says that it supports a two-state solution and tells people to visit Israel “to see it for yourself” but they do not expose the reality of the occupation.
Earlier this year, two StandWithUs fellows wrote an article about their work in the Jewish News, in which they revealed: “Ultimately … our motivation is to change people’s gut feelings towards Israel, from ‘Israel is an apartheid state that randomly kills Palestinian children’ (what the social media narrative wants them to believe) to ‘Israel is fully justified to defend itself and is actually quite a cool, vibrant and exciting country’”
If you look at the resources StandWithUs uses in their sessions, it is clear these materials minimise and distort the reality of the occupation. Its Israel Pocket Facts booklet, which was given out at this year’s conference, does not even mention the word occupation, while its Israel 101 booklet does so only in quotation marks as if to emphasise that it isn’t real.
It also claims that Palestinians have flourished under the occupation, and perpetuates the myth that they don’t really exist.
All of this serves to deny or minimise the violence and discrimination that it is being perpetuated via the occupation, rather than confront it and take a stand against it. It is an example of the moral deficit that sits at the heart of the Israel education which is now part and parcel of Jewish life.
The events it organises are even more concerning. StandWithUs UK’s conference this month featured a talk from their Academic Director who wrote a blog earlier this year titled The only ethnic or religious group that faces systematic discrimination in Israel are Jews’, an almost unbelievable example of occupation denial. Sadly, in recent years they have brought multiple speakers to the UK who are happy to defend the occupation, and even defend Donald Trump’s antisemitism.
I now call the British Jewish community my home, and Israel is understandably a huge part of life in it, but that is even more reason why we cannot continue to ignore this elephant in the room – the moral crisis of occupation which harms Palestinians and Israelis alike.
We can no longer stay silent about the occupation, pretending it doesn’t exist, or – even worse – defending or denying the reality of it.
This means confronting the way that organisations such as StandWithUs do this, considering themselves to be a neutral, mainstream part of the community. My experience as a Fellow taught me that this is exactly what they try to do, despite their apparent lack of concern for Palestinians or what looks like their support for the occupation.
I am an Israeli, I was a soldier in Gaza and I know first-hand how awful the occupation is.
It causes so much harm for Palestinians, and it forces Israelis to be immoral.
Defending it is the least Jewish thing to do, and yet that is what StandWithUs is doing on a daily basis in our community. The day Jews end their moral support for the occupation will be the day it begins to end. I joined Na’amod to help make this day come. And it will.