Young Israelis fight stereotypes with one-on-one dialogue

Sara Lefton, left, and Meryle Kates
Sara Lefton, left, and Meryle Kates

A group of Israeli 20-somethings completed their outreach tour of university campuses with a stop in Toronto last week.

“We’re at a very critical time to fight the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement, and the community needs to stand together,” said Meryle Kates, executive director of StandWithUs Canada, which organized the 10-day trip.

Known as WordSwap, the program bills itself as a “dialogue for open minds” and bets that a cross-section of young Israelis can connect with Canadian students in ways that pro-Israel activists cannot.

Appreciating the diversity in Israel

“It’s an important message that Israel is diverse, not monolithic, like Canada,” said Sara Lefton, vice president (GTA) at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “As Canadians, we appreciate diversity, and it’s important to appreciate the diversity in Israel.”

CIJA partnered with StandWithUs for the final event, geared to adults, on Nov. 30 at the Rosehill Venue Lounge. More than 100 people rotated among four stations to hear the life stories of the six-person crew.

“We’re always looking for ways to provide advocacy tools for members of the community,” said Lefton. “This evening allows them to learn their story and hear about diversity.”

WordSwappers in this year’s edition, the program’s third, interacted with about 5,000 students in total and visited eight campuses: Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, McGill University, Concordia University, Carleton University, Ryerson University, York University, and the University of Toronto.

The program uses a soft sell by eschewing Israeli flags for Chinese fortune cookies containing factoids about the country. Informal conversation, not pro-Israel placards, carries the day.

READ: Waterloo student group presses for Israel boycott

“It works, it works,” said Hen Mazzig, who is also education director for StandWithUs Israel. “You can see how students change their hearts, change their minds… I have never experienced such a positive effect as actively reaching students one on one, and my deepest hope as an Israeli is that we can do this mission again.”

He recalled a conversation with a Palestinian woman at York University.

“She said, ‘You need to understand that Palestinians are freedom fighters.’ And I said, ‘But civilians are being attacked – women and children are being killed. When I was 12, I was about to enter an ice cream shop and I was almost killed by a terrorist.’ She didn’t know anything about our side of the narrative, which I understand, but it was the first time she heard that. I’m already in touch with her by email.”

Another time, he said, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier shared her negative opinions on Israel, formed by time spent with Palestinians. “She was volunteering in Palestinian refugee camps,” Mazzig said, “but she didn’t know there were Jewish refugees, too, and that we demand justice, too. She said she would do more research on that.”

Mazzig, an Iraqi-Tunisian Israeli who served as an openly gay commander in the Israel Defence Forces, was joined by Victory Hallel Ramontsho, the daughter of a half-Jewish Ukrainian mother and Botswanian father (she underwent Orthodox conversion a few years ago); Nayef Haib, a Bedouin Muslim whose father was killed by Hezbollah while serving in the IDF; Ofek Stern, a secular Tel Avivian; Ron Lahav, who hails from an Orthodox Yemenite family; and Shadi Halaby, a Druze from northern Israel. Emily Rose, who moved to Israel from Winnipeg in 2006, joined the trip near its end, when Lahav returned to Israel for her law-school exams.

READ: Anti-Israel students protest lecture by Israeli Bedouin diplomat

Just by attending, the two Arab members of the group dented the beliefs of some students, who thought Israel had no Arab citizens.

“We heard from a lot of people that they are tokens,” Mazzig said, “but the fact that the two of them are here out of a delegation of six people means something. And we didn’t have to run after them to come – they came to us.”