Exclusive: StandWithUs director, ‘inspired by Israelis,’ discusses new book about country’s resilience

“Isresilience” dives into the mindset of Israelis. How have they survived so many existential threats – and thrived? What can the world learn from them?

By Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News

The Jewish people are known to be resilient. Throughout history, dating back to the times of the prophets, the resilience of the Jewish people has never failed.

But no group of Jews has been as resilient as the Israelis, who have continuously been under attack since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948 and even decades prior to its establishment.

A new book, published 72 years later, takes a deep dive in the mindset of Israelis. How have they survived such threats? What can the world learn from Israelis?

Isresilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World, co-authored by Michael Dickson and Dr. Naomi Baum and published by Gefen, discusses how Israel has managed to overcome each obstacle, including the challenges faced by the Zionist fighters and settlers in the pre-state years.

Co-author Dickson, executive director of American pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, brings a fresh perspective on Israel’s success not only on the battlefield, but in the world of hi-tech. In an interview with World Israel News, he explains why he believes the book is so important at this time.

Q: How did you first meet your co-author, Dr. Naomi Baum?

“This is something I’ve wanted to do for awhile. About six years ago, I began the project, and the idea was to dig into the issue of resilience. I went to Metiv, the Israel Psychotrauma Center in Jerusalem. Naomi was one of the first interviewees for the book because I wanted to study the issue of dealing with victims of terror.

“She was very involved in helping people during the Second Intifada. She’s traveled all around the world as part of Israel aid delegations after Hurricane Katrina and in Nepal. I invited her to come on the journey with me. She and I crossed the country to meet all kinds of people.”

Q: There are plenty of books about Israel. What makes this one different?

“The most important distinction is that it’s not a book about Israel, but about Israeli beliefs… What we’re doing here is telling the story of some amazing Israelis. It’s made up of 14 chapters, [each] with a different person we met, and extrapolates from them keys to resilience that anyone can take on.”

Q: What did you learn about Israel yourself while writing this book?

“One of my biggest takeaways was meeting people who experienced a really unbearable tragedy — the loss of a child, terrible injuries, freak accidents and live-and-death decisions. You would expect the material to be serious, and lots of it is, but one thread that flows through the whole book is positivity, being forward-looking with a sense of humor, and there wasn’t one interview when we didn’t laugh. It’s inspiring and soul nourishing.”

Q: What inspired you to write this book, and why now?

“I’m inspired by Israelis, and I feel we’re telling a story that hasn’t been told. People think they know Israelis and think of them as tough. Often, that toughness is a pejorative, and we quote Robert De Niro in the world when he speaks about Israelis being warm and intelligent. We were uncovering something in the Israeli character and sharing it with the world.

“We couldn’t predict how relevant it would be, but resilience is the commodity everyone needs right now. We’re all going through something together, and in this pandemic, the thing that will get us through it is resilience. As we discuss in the book, you are born with a certain amount of resilience, but you can also develop and grow it.”

Q: How did you come up with ISRESILIENCE as the title?

“It pops up and it became apparent as we were doing this because it’s the thrill line between all of the different stories. We have a diversity of Israelis with people who came from the Soviet Union, who trekked through Africa, Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis. The thrill line with all of them is this resilient core. Sometimes, it’s expressed in a personal way, and sometimes it’s the community that lends them that resilience. Quite often, it’s the nation and country that lends them that resilience. We found that it’s a new concept.”

Q: How did you find time to write this while working for StandWithUs?

“That’s probably one of the reasons why it took so many years. In those years, we’ve had wars, terrorist attacks, stabbing intifadas, bombings and so much more. We’ve been through a lot, and StandWithUs is a key part of my life. I’ve been with StandWithUs for almost 15 years, and we’ve grown it out as a movement around the world. That’s why it was great to work with a co-author, because we pushed each other forward.”

Q: What’s the biggest challenge StandWithUs is facing on university campuses in America?

“One of the byproducts of the pandemic is Israel’s enemies have found new ways to try to do what they do to defame and delegitimize Israel. When hate isn’t on campus, it moves online. You have a former hijacker and terrorist [Leila Khaled] addressing Zoom events for San Francisco State University. That’s anti-Semitic bullying with hateful events moving from the campus to online, and we need to combat that. We have to put forward a truthful depiction of what Israel really is.

“Another is the intersectionality that says Israel is aligned with unjust causes and that supporting Palestinians and being anti-Israel is part of a movement towards justice. We have to break that dichotomy because it’s incorrect. It’s a battle for hearts and minds.”

Q: Why is BDS starting to grow and appear in more headlines at different universities?

“We see peaks and troughs at different campuses. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we keep a close eye on it. On campus, the atmosphere is very transient. You’ve got people coming and going, and different campuses react in different ways. BDS in general is failing more recently than it’s succeeding. It’s a losing prospect, and one of the reasons is the recent peace processes.

“I think that’s going to be — it’s still very new — a key aspect for the pro-Israel community to embrace peace with Arab countries. The Palestinians should get on board with that because that’s something we can point to and show the opposite of BDS is a much more compelling prospect. That’s prosperity, investment and joint cooperation in so many different ways. It’s going to be an incredibly powerful message on campuses during this academic year.”

Q: Does the establishment of peace plans with Arab countries help Jewish students on campus?

“One-hundred perecent. What these deals show is Israel is not a maligned player. Israel is a positive player in the Middle East and a force for good. If Israel had its way, there would be peace with the Palestinians too. The peace with its neighbors — Egypt and Jordan — would be warmer. But Israel is one side of the coin, and what’s increasingly happening is the other players are seeing their future is aligned with an Israel that’s sticking around.

“That’s a powerful message for students to take on to a campus. It’s something we should embrace and push forward. Israel, when given a peace agreement that’s fair and works for all, rushes to sign it. We would point to Egypt in the ’70s and Jordan in the ’90s, but now we can point to real-life, real-world experiences of today.”

Q: How do university students who are more liberal fight for Israel when they are being attacked by progressives?

“You see liberal-leaning Jews being frozen out of other movements they feel they should be able to align with, simply because they are Jewish and pro-Israel. That is something we need to take a strong stand against. You saw it in its extreme in the United Kingdom with Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party. They were basically saying that if you’re Jewish and pro-Israel, you can’t be part of us. We have to put our foot down on that.

“There are so many points of interaction between Israel and people who are progressive and those who are conservative. It’s about finding those points of interaction and highlighting them because there’s so much for people to engage with for Israel. Anti-Israel groups are saying you don’t get the right to speak on anything because of the Palestinian issue, and that’s unacceptable.”