SAN DIEGO – Lemonade and chalk are two tools that the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs (SWU) utilizes on college campuses across the U.S. and Canada to combat aggressive anti-Israel campaigns launched by such groups as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)
Sarah Tagger, a campus strategist for the 17-year-old StandWithUs, briefed members of Tifereth Israel Synagogue's Men's Club and Sisterhood at a joint Israel Independence Day barbecue on Thursday, April 19, about how SWU is both proactive and reactive in the Middle Eastern battle for students' minds on North American college campuses, high schools, and even middle schools.
The lemons and chalk are part of the proactive campaign, in which StandWithUs volunteers gain the interest of passersby with interesting activities that enable the volunteers to tell a little bit of Israel's story.
In the case of lemons, she said, StandWithUs offers free lemonade while inviting students to "Squeeze the Challenge." Building on the expression, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade," the SWU volunteers tell how the Jewish people were born as a people in the land of Israel 3,000 years ago and how many, but not all, were expelled, subjected to oppression, and ultimately genocide, but how the Jewish people were able to recover from the "lemons" life had dealt them and build a thriving home in modern-day Israel, thus making "lemonade." Students then are challenged to think about the lemons that have been handed to them in their lives, and how they too can make lemonade.
"Students are coming to us, and we don't need to approach them because they are seeing something that is fun, and at the same time they are learning a little more about Israel," Tagger said. "We encourage them to learn more and engage with this issue, whereas before they may not have engaged at all."
As for the chalk, on other occasions StandWith Us sets up a big chalk board on campus, and borrowing from the Ten Days of Gratitude program in Israel, invites students who are passing by to write on the board anything that they are grateful for. The SWU volunteers tell them that in Israel people commemorate Yom HaShoah—Holocaust remembrance day—and later in the month celebrate Yom Ha'Atzma'ut while expressing gratitude for having their own country in which the Jewish people at last can exercise self-determination.
On the reactive side of the equation, StandWithUs sets up information displays across walkways from the "apartheid walls" that SJP erects on various campuses. The SJP walls measure approximately 10 feet high and feature 10 panels "just painted with lies about Israel," Tagger said. One panel has a "picture of a helicopter dropping bombs on all these kids, and the helicopter has a Jewish star on it." Such depictions make one realize that SJP is not only engaged in an attack on Israel, but that it is also using the false propaganda to attack Jews generally, she said.
With StandWithUs's help, giant informational panels can be erected right across from the "apartheid wall" with positive information about Israel such as the facts behind Israel's founding, and what Zionism means," Tagger said. This enables students who see the apartheid wall to cross the walkway and to learn about the other side.
Another tactic anti-Israel forces use on campuses is introducing resolutions to have student governments demand that the college administration "boycott, divest from, and sanction" (BDS) companies that do business with Israel.
StandWithUs provides students with information and talking points to help defeat these resolutions when they come up for debate. Tagger, a veteran of these battles, said she is very proud that to date at UC Santa Barbara, no BDS resolution has been adopted.
Tagger was graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2016, after serving as president of the Hillel chapter there in addition to her activities with StandWithUs. She said when she arrived on the campus as a freshman she thought she was well informed about Israel, having visited there on the "March of the Living" and always having been active at her temple and at the Mountain Chai summer camp.
However, she said, she was unprepared to deal with the outright animosity toward Israel that she encountered in one of the very first classes that she took, wherein the professor of "Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies" took the time of almost every class session to bash Israel.
"He used every lecture twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes to talk about Israel. This was supposed to be the history of the Middle East, and all he talked about was Israel, this tiny little slip of a country in this entire geographic area of the world. He assigned anti-Israel articles; he assigned anti-Israel books; he had anti-Israel speakers, and I sat there and I watched as all my peers were brainwashed to hate Israel. They were hearing from this professor about all these 'bad things' Israel was doing without getting any other viewpoint, and they were taking his word for it. I sat there in awe. I felt shut down. I didn't know what I could do as a student, as a new student, especially when my grade was on the line, to make a difference.
"To have this happening not only in class, but across the campus, was the first time that I felt that I had to take action…. So, I became involved, and when a BDS resolution came up… our community said, 'We are not going to stand for this; there is something we have to do about it.'"
Once in contact with StandWithUs, she said, she no longer felt isolated, and powerless, and she and other students willingly participated in the ideological battle on campus. She eventually became an Emerson Fellow, which essentially is a liaison between StandWithUs and her campus.
"We have close to 100 fellows at schools around the country and Canada," she said. "They have the opportunity to bring in speakers, get grants for different programs and all these resources. … It became an opportunity for our community to come together over these challenges, to help each other out, and to find ways to educate students so that in their classes and when they walk on campus, they can speak up and do something about it. They don't have to just sit there and watch it happen."
In her senior year, she said, a professor teaching "Global Ethics" assigned reading on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in addition to other issues. "The articles she assigned were anti-Israel, really awful. I went to her office, brought her all of these articles, and I said, 'It isn't fair to have only one side out there' and she said, 'Oh, I didn't actually know what the articles said; they were recommended by someone in a different department. Thanks so much for giving me this information, for the next time I teach this course.'"
After her graduation, Tagger got in touch with the StandWithUs headquarters in Los Angeles to say "How are you doing? What's new with StandWithUs? Also, do you have a job?" StandWithUs encouraged her to apply for the job, and today she is a strategist and campaign manager to help pro-Israel students across the country.
Near the end of a question and answer session, a Tifereth Israel Synagogue congregant asked what grade Tagger got in that freshman class, given the professor's obvious anti-Israel bias."
"I got a B-plus, but I think I deserved an A," she responded. "One essay was supposed to be anti-Israel, but I fought back against that!" She added that she doesn't know the circumstances, whether the professor transferred to another college, or quit teaching, but that professor no longer teaches at UC Santa Barbara.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.