By Robert Isler | Jewish Press | January 19, 2024
Photo Credit: StandWithUs
StandWithUs (SWU), the influential education organization which has been supporting Israel and combatting antisemitism for over two decades, is spearheading a new initiative that couldn’t have come soon enough. Initially founded in response to the second intifada by Roz Rothstein (CEO), Jerry Rothstein (COO) and Esther Renzer (President), the goal of SWU, as shared by Roz Rothstein, was to make sure “that Israeli citizens knew they were not alone, that their story was fairly told in the media, and that North American students in colleges and high schools were confident and knowledgeable enough to have meaningful conversations with their peers about Israel.”
That’s a tall order but its mission struck a chord. The organization has been rapidly expanding ever since. It currently has offices in six continents, and is comprised of 15 departments. It has an Israel education center, a Holocaust education center, a research & strategy department; and its general presence spans social media, online resources, conferences, films and community education. Its in-house legal staff has access to over 250 pro bono lawyers. Rothstein differentiates SWU from other organizations by noting that its various departments “support one another in the fight against antisemitism and in an effort to education people of all ages.”
Perhaps its strongest presence is within the field of education; with campus, high school, and middle school programs. This has made it particularly well-suited to push back against the current controversial educational initiatives in North America that may have begun at the university level but are fast becoming rooted in the curriculums of high schools and even middle and elementary schools. To that end, SWU recently hired David Smokler to direct its K-12 educator outreach program. Smokler is uniquely qualified, having spent 26 years as a public school teacher and administrator. He shared that he made the decision “because I believe that too many educators are feeling isolated, under attack, and unsure how to navigate what were already charged school climates during these extraordinary times.”
While SWU fundamentally supports marginalized communities having their voices heard in the classroom through ethnic studies programs, the concern has been the special interest groups who have “relentlessly tried to exploit [ethnic studies] program[s] as a platform for anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda.” This has often slipped into the realm of antisemitism. SWU has begun the process of increasing education about Jews and antisemitism in public schools.
Within California, a state that has led the charge in initiating ethnic study programs, SWU partnered with thousands statewide to change the curriculum. As a result, in 2021 the California State Board of education recognized that content about Jews and antisemitism belongs in K-12 ethnic studies. Their latest initiative includes three goal – to fight bigotry against Jews in public and non-Jewish private schools within the U.S.; to better educate about Jews, antisemitism and Israel; and to create a network of Jews and allies to support each other and share best practices within the K-12 arena.
According to Rothstein, the StandWithUs K-12 Educator Network builds on a high school student leadership program initiated in 2012 which educates about Israel and fights antisemitism. Since 2019 the organization has been working to more systematically address bigotry and bias in public and non-Jewish private schools, including in states that are passing ethnic studies requirements and other academic standards. As antisemitism has increased in recent years within school systems, with an explosion of hatred since the start of the war with Hamas, SWU has allocated more resources in an effort to fight it. This starts with leaning on existing strong relationships with numerous schools and school communities, as well as collaborating with Jewish federations and other partners across the country. Smokler also noted that they plan to have booths at upcoming national education conferences to connect with other educators who care about Israel and want to fight antisemitism.
Another avenue for the K-12 Educator Network is to play a role in professional development for teachers of social studies, ethnic studies and other relevant courses, and to share educational resources that include Jewish voices and perspectives. They also have a goal of creating a grassroots network to develop strong contacts in new school districts across the country.
Smokler indicated that SWU has already provided direct support to over 200 U.S. and Canadian schools both proactively and to address the flood of requests for assistance as antisemitic incidents have ballooned.
SWU is starting with a newsletter for members of its network and will also be creating a website with various resources for educators. The plan is to build on it with professional development workshops, conferences and other initiatives to connect, exchange ideas and discuss common challenges.
Despite all of the planned efforts, both Rothstein and Smokler acknowledge that it won’t be easy, given the number of people who want to silence Jewish voices, spread lies about Jews and Israel, and radicalize teachers and students based on their indoctrinations. SWU noted the power of creating a community of like-minded people to support each other through difficult times. When asked by The Jewish Press how they would measure success for this initiative, Smokler noted that the goal was to build a large, organically grown network of educators, so success will be partially based on the size of the network. Additionally, they said, it’s about how well they can empower members of the network to make positive changes.