When Julie Paris, the Mid-Atlantic regional director of StandWithUs, first spoke with Charlene Tissenbaum about bringing antisemitism awareness and Israel education to the South Hills, Hamas hadn’t yet murdered more Jews in one day since the Holocaust. Jewish college students hadn’t yet confronted university administrators about their lukewarm statements of support for Israel while failing to mention Hamas’ terror attack. Social media influencers hadn’t yet focused their temporal gaze in large numbers on the Hamas-Israel war, calling Israelis “colonizers” and claiming they deserved the violence visited upon them.
The thought process,” Paris said, “was people don’t know what to do. So we’re working to provide information for our Jewish students and pro-Israel students on campus.”
After Oct. 7, the program planned by Paris and Tissenbaum, an Israel advocate who lives in the South Hills, was even more resonant.
Dimas Guaico, StandWithUs’ senior regional campus manager, came to Temple Emanuel of South Hills on Oct. 17 to tell his story and discuss what he was seeing on university campuses.
Guaico manages StandWithUs activities on close to 100 campuses, Paris said. He saw a dramatic rise in antisemitic rhetoric and anti-Israel actions targeting Jewish students even before Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack.
More than 100 South Hills residents, concerned University of Pittsburgh students, members of the Hindu Jain Temple, Pittsburgh’s shinshinim, as well as local political leaders, including Edgewood council member Bhavini Patel and Pittsburgh Deputy Controller Rachael Heisler, gathered for the program.
“We are here today to stand in solidarity with Israel,” Paris said. “We’re here to support Israel, to support one another, to combat the misinformation and propaganda that we’re seeing and hearing.”
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Rabbi Aaron Meyer opened the evening by saying his “heart breaks” for the “innocents who lost their lives to Hamas terrorism.”
“Our community feels especially fearful and sick,” he said, “knowing that it feels like so few are concerned for Jewish Life.”
Meyer introduced Guaico, saying he was born to Christian and Latin American parents and that he joined StandWithUs after a meaningful experience in Israel.
Guaico started his presentation by explaining that he has worked with StandWithUs, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonreligious organization, for the last 22 years.
After presenting a map of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and explaining that the Jewish state is roughly the size of New Jersey, Guaico outlined the history of Hamas, beginning with its creation as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization primarily focused in North Africa and Egypt.
Guaico touched briefly on the first and second intifadas and how Hamas was able to gain control of the Gaza Strip during elections in 2006. He mentioned that the terrorist organization, mainly focused on Israel, has also had violent exchanges with the Palestinian Authority and civilians living in Gaza. In fact, he said, there is a list of rules that those living there have to follow.
The StandWithUs representative briefly explained the regional powers, including the roles of Turkey and Qatar, and the importance of the Abraham Accords.
Addressing a hot topic on college campuses, Guaico presented the historical reasons Israel is neither a colonizer nor the administrator of an apartheid state.
Shifting to Hamas, he explained that the organization continues to commit war crimes.
“Israel has a right to defend itself,” Guaico said, “just like any other sovereign nation does.”
He pointed out that innocent Gaza residents have suffered under Hamas’ regime since the elections that brought the organization to power.
Guaico transitioned to discuss being born in Chile and moving to the States with his parents. His father, a pastor, was a political refuge from the Pinochet regime that governed the country.
In 2018, he went to Israel with Passages Israel, a Christian group that takes college students to the Jewish state, much like Birthright Israel. It was this trip that eventually led to Guaico working with StandWithUs.
Both Paris and Guaico took questions from those in attendance, including: How should one respond when Israel is called an apartheid state?; What is the right response to left-wing attacks on college campuses?; and, Will Israel’s response to Hamas’ terrorist attack trigger a backlash and create a larger divide between those who support peace and civilians living in Gaza?
As to whether Israel is a apartheid state, Guaico pointed out that the term is South African and should be applied to discrimination and racial inequality that goes to an extreme.
“The fact is Arab Israelis make up a big minority in Israel,” he said, noting they hold political office, study in universities and get the same benefits of other citizens.
Asked how to respond to the allegation that those living in Gaza and the West Bank are in open air prisons, Guaico noted that Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
Before the end of the talk, Paris said that StandWithUs, along with a dozen other organizations, sent letters to every college administration around the country, asking that they designate Students for Justice in Palestine as a hate group and to defund them on campus.
Near the end of the hour-long presentation, Paris said that those with questions about Israel’s war with Hamas should visit StandWithUs’ Situation Room for the latest news.
The event was sponsored by the Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, StandWithUs and Temple Emanuel of South Hills. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.