Clear Voices, Bright Stories [Jewish Independent]

[I have started doing a little freelance writing for the local Jewish newspaper, and the first article I wrote – covering a local Jewish event – appeared on the front cover this week!]

Israel Apartheid Week has become an event to watch on the annual campus calendar for many young Jews and Jewish institutions in Canada. This year, to counter the anti-Israel sentiments raised by IAW events and to provide another view for those on campus who might be interested in learning more, Hillel at the University of British Columbia designated what has typically been IAW, as Israel: A Party Week (which, if said the right way, sounds a lot like Israel Apartheid Week).

One major event, timed to coincide with the start to Israel: A Party Week, was We R Israel, held at Temple Sholom Synagogue on Feb. 28. A visit by four Israelis – Christian, gay, Arab and Ethiopian – was initiated by the Israel Foreign Ministry and hosted by TAG BC, the supplementary Jewish high school, and Vancouver Hillel. The four young adults are on a speaking tour of campuses across Canada to offer a counterpoint to the image of Israel presented at IAW events.

According to Ohad Gavrieli, the shaliach (emissary) currently working at Hillel UBC, the stories told by the guest speakers epitomize the alternate Israeli narrative that needs to be disseminated. Gavrieli suggested having the young adults speak at a venue off campus, however, so that their appearance could be accessible to a wider portion of the community. Organized with help from Noam Dolgin, TAG director, and Rabbi Philip Bregman of Temple Sholom, this event featured a predominantly young audience, with more than half the crowd being high school aged.

Each speaker shared his/her story and then took questions from the audience, providing the touring Israelis with an opportunity to highlight the diversity of Israeli life, a reality, they stressed, that is often neglected in media reports about Israel. While the event was not geared towards fighting antisemitism, as are their on-campus speaking engagements, the honest way in which they shared their stories will help “prepare our teens for life in the real world,” according to Dolgin, especially those in the audience that night who will find themselves on university campuses in the coming years.

Introducing the speakers, Dolgin said that they would show the audience “Israel as we don’t normally experience it” – and the four did not disappoint. First to speak was Monir Hakim, a Christian Arab living in Nazareth who, after making friends with Jews while living temporarily in Ashdod, decided to volunteer for the Israel Defence Forces, an unusual and, among some of his community, unpopular, move. Hakim described his time in the IDF as exciting, and he finished his service as a first lieutenant. Hakim still keeps in touch with his fellow soldiers, he said, as, despite being a minority in the army, the bonds made between soldiers are strong. He currently works as a private detective in a largely Jewish environment, emphasizing this point to further show how Israel is not as discriminatory as is often perceived. Hakim described the current speaking tour as something that he would do “again and again” because he hopes that he “is going to change minds.”

Second to speak was Eter Bisawer, a third-year Jewish law student at Hebrew University, living in Rishon LeZion. Bisawer’s story was dominated by her parent’s emigration to Israel from Ethiopia a few years before she was born. The audience was treated to an engaging and passionate account of her family’s migration story.

Bisawer spoke of her family’s ordeal, describing the trek that her father, then-pregnant mother and older sister (who was two years old at the time) had to make to the Sudanese border. To help students identify, she likened this journey to leaving everything behind and walking all the way to Los Angeles (though the distances are not the same, listeners understood the meaning), keeping cover during the day and walking at night, with no protection from bandits or robbers, with only the hope that you would eventually be flown to Israel.

Bisawer’s mother gave birth to a son while waiting to fly to Israel, but the infant did not survive the conditions in the camp and died at nine months. He was buried in an unknown location, a fact that means that members of her family do not have a gravesite to visit.

After nearly a year, Bisawer’s family was finally flown to Israel, and they now are living out their dream, she said, with five girls, one of whom (a younger sister) is the first Ethiopian dentistry student in Israel. Bisawer ended by saying that she definitely considers Israel “home,” as does her family.

Jabour Mary (pronounced Marie), who also lives in Nazareth, began her talk by apologizing for her English, it being her fourth language. She studied social work at Hebrew University, and described the first time that she took a bus into Jerusalem to go to school – at the time, she didn’t understand enough Hebrew to ask the bus driver for the correct stop. Even though she is an Israeli citizen, Mary explained, because there is not much of a connection between the majority Arab community of Nazareth and the Jews living there, Hebrew is not taught or spoken among the community in which she grew up. Mary eventually learned Hebrew fluently and is now volunteering at an organization focusing on violence against women. She said that she hopes to one day work with children, but for now is gaining experience. Mary described her story as an opportunity for a “zoom-in” look at life in Israel, as opposed to the broader picture that the media often portrays.

Adam Asad, 19, is studying international relations and English literature at the University of Haifa. Asad, a Druze, described working hard to attain two positions through the university – an assistant teaching job for eighth and ninth grade students in English, and a job organizing a tour for visiting Korean students who want to learn about Israeli culture. His friends told him, when he applied for both jobs, that he would likely not get the position. Many friends said that because Israel is a discriminatory country, he would never be given such a job when Jews were competing with him, yet Asad got both jobs for which he applied. Asad, like Hakim, emphasized that Israel is not nearly as discriminatory as is often claimed, especially, he said, in the workplace.

The rawness of the presentations reinforced that the four are not on a professional diplomatic mission per se – these are simply four ordinary citizens of Israel sharing their stories. Asad made clear this distinction when he described sitting at a table in the UBC Student Union Building earlier in the day and having a long conversation with an Egyptian and an Iranian student, a fact only possible because he could speak to them in Arabic and is, himself, a student.

All four speakers focused on their day-to-day experiences, which are not dissimilar from those of young adults in Canada – they, too, live lives that are not merely dominated by politics, contrary to popular media images.

Asad was hopeful for the future, concluding with Theodor Herzl’s famous saying: “Im tirtzu, ein zu aggada.” (“If you wish it, it is not a dream.”)

 

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