Born and raised a strong Zionist in a monochromatic Jewish world, I attended the Solomon Schechter Day School through eighth grade, and I always knew I loved Israel. I never knew why I loved Israel and that was because I didn’t have to explain. I never faced opposition to my passion for my culture and never encountered friends who were not excited for Yom Ha’Atzmaut. To put it simply, I never had to defend Israel, so I never knew it required defending.
This all changed in high school. I attend Niles North, one of the most diverse high schools in Illinois; I instantly appreciated this environment. I became an integral part of a diverse campus, and grew as a woman and leader. I was exposed to other cultures and gained an appreciation for a colorful world. Most importantly, I developed a strong sense of Jewish identity.
My first encounter with anti-Israel rhetoric occurred during my sophomore year. I joined We Help Others (WHO) Club, a social justice organization that serves to educate students on injustices plaguing society. I found the meetings engaging and empowering. However, one guest speaker was a United Nations representative who worked in Gaza. He showed us a horrifying video in which Palestinian people condemned Israel for breaking international law, violating human rights, and obstructing justice.
I was shocked. Other people in the room were also panic-stricken, yet no one spoke up. I left the meeting questioning myself and my beliefs. Were those people lying? Was Israel, in fact, a perpetrator of international crime?
I questioned my parents that night at dinner. I asked how Israel could claim to be a humanitarian state when it oppressed innocent people, and I shared the speaker’s video evidence. My parents, more educated on Israel than I was, explained the gist of the conflict and the complications in presenting facts to others. They provided me with context, elucidating on why Palestinian people are angry, and why, while Israel is not perfect, it is not at fault for the situation in its entirety. Despite my parents’ reassurance, I felt angry that nobody else spoke up and also, that I had not. A Jewish state was something I believed in, and it became my goal to understand why.
I expressed this aspiration to my Israel Club faculty sponsor who nominated me for an internship with StandWithUs (SWU), and I was accepted. As a StandWithUs intern, under the leadership of SWU Midwest high school coordinator Vida Velasco, I have been provided with an immense opportunity for empowerment and leadership development. Through SWU I’ve learned that I live in a world of heightened social action and that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement hijacks these causes for its own anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agenda.
I used my passion for advocacy to become involved in a variety of clubs at Niles North. I remain passionate about diversity and equality and have conveyed that to my peers. Educating teens about the dangers of the BDS movement is one of my priorities. I preach messages of unity and proudly say, “We are one” — my school mantra. As school president I am responsible for representing all people, from all backgrounds, with all experiences. I am proud to serve because I believe in diversity. And this is exactly why I am pro-Israel.
Two years after his first appearance at the WHO Club, the UN representative returned. He was no longer stationed in Gaza and discussed his new experiences. After his presentation, I approached him and thanked him for inspiring my involvement in pro-Israel advocacy —how ironic. We had a lengthy discussion in which he explained that his intentions in presenting the video were not to be anti-Israel, but to educate on humanitarian needs abroad. I expressed that while his intentions were benign, his video was convoluted and erroneous. He understood my point and we parted on positive terms, with a mutual understanding of one another.
Early in March I had the honor of being one of eight high school interns to attend StandWithUs’s third annual anti-BDS conference in Los Angeles. The event was open to community members and it brought together hundreds of high school- and college-aged leaders from the U.S., Canada, and Israel with professionals from dozens of organizations working to end the anti-Semitic BDS campaigns. Students participated in training provided by SWU campus and research staff, together with campus partners including Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition. (Photo: StandWithUs high school interns flank Roz Rothstein (center) co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs. From left, Josh Kornblum, Farber Hebrew Day Academy, Detroit; Spencer Schwartz; Rayut Berkowitz, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Baltimore; and Yoni Altman-Shafer, Nicolet High School, Milwaukee. Photo courtesy SWU)
I always assumed that in a world of acceptance the Jewish people are celebrated, despite a history of hardship. Sadly, anti-Semitism is now masked by anti-Israel rhetoric.
People have associated BDS with liberalism, however its mission is not open-minded. BDS takes a snapshot of the current conflict and facilitates an us-versus-them message, where Palestinians are the oppressed, and Zionists are the oppressors. We, the pro-Israel community, are left to fill in the blanks and provide background on the situation.
BDS denounces a two-state solution and delegitimizes Israel’s existence through demonization. Through intersectionality, and claims that because Palestinians are oppressed pro-Palestinian students should identify with other oppressed people, the support for BDS has grown. I support intersectionality and mutual support for pressing issues, but the abuse of honorable actions is disheartening.
At the conference, StandWithUs assembled international experts who examined the movement’s latest tactics including how its activists infiltrate and/or pressure various sectors of society. It addressed BDS on college campuses, in the legal arena, within legislation, in churches, and in the fields of academia, business, and cultural arts.
I had the privilege of hearing many Jewish leaders, including former Harvard law professor and staunch Israel defender Alan Dershowitz. Filling an entire notepad with facts and statements that spoke to me, I soaked in a multitude of information. I learned about the strategies BDS uses to target students, the intense debates that I will encounter, and, most importantly, I learned that I have a lot more learning to do. While I am afraid to confront BDS, I am empowered to combat, dismantle, and eradicate it.
I am pro-Israel because I believe in coexistence.
I am pro-Israel because I believe in dialogue.
I am pro-Israel because I believe in history and facts.
The Jewish people have been exiled, but our success and ability to overcome is a story of hope and empowerment. It is shameful that in a progressive world we face adversity. It is not outrageous to ask for our freedom, in our indigenous land, but BDS denounces this right. The Israeli army defends our people every day, but now, we’re also fighting a war of words. It is the responsibility of all people to use our free speech to defend justice. I do not fight for Israel because I am Jewish, I advocate for Israel because I believe in justice and coexistence, and I encourage others to join me.