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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arabs, gays and an MTV VJ to fight apartheid analogy

Group of young Israelis, chosen by Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs to go on a speaking tour of the US.

As Israeli Apartheid Week nears, the government on Monday unveiled its latest initiative aimed at debunking the analogy made by Palestinian supporters between the Jewish state and minority rule in South Africa.

At a reception at the Knesset, the Public Diplomacy Ministry presented a diverse group of about 20 volunteer speakers consisting of Arabs, gay rights activists, Ethiopian Jews and a former MTV presenter who will tour campuses in North America later this month highlighting Israeli society’s pluralism.

Yuli Edelstein (Likud), the minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, said the aim was not to defend the government’s policies per se, but rather to demonstrate the country’s democratic and egalitarian values.

“If it turns into political debate don’t feel obliged to represent the government,” Edelstein told the group. “The people who organize Apartheid Week aren’t pro- Likud or pro-Labor. Their problem is the existence of Israel. If there is this or that discussion and someone asks about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, feel free to express your opinion even if you voted Meretz. If it comes from your kishkes [gut] you’ll show a lot more integrity.”

Israeli Apartheid Week is an annual series of lectures and rallies held in late February or early March in which Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its Arab citizens is equated with South Africa’s treatment of non-whites under Apartheid. Since it began in 2005, the movement has grown significantly and now takes places in dozens of campuses around the world.

The government hopes that during their talks set to take place in Washington, New York, Boston, Toronto and Vancouver, the participants will help counter claims that Israel is inherently discriminatory, by talking about their personal experiences.

Adam Asad, a Druse from the Galilee, acknowledged that inequality between Jews and Arabs in Israel exists but said he believed such disparities can be overcome within the framework of Israeli society.

“In any case, there are no laws that stipulate [discrimination],” said the 19-year-old, who is the youngest members of the delegation. “I feel I can address the issues at hand and correct injustices that exist.”

Rinan Khoury, a Christian from Nazareth, said she wasn’t afraid of confronting Arabs during the tour who might call her a traitor.

“It’s to be expected,” she said. “I have relatives who left, but we decided to stay here and work for our rights. We want to solve this issue, and that’s why I took part in national service.”

Khoury added: “Inequality is everywhere, but not discrimination.”

Becky Griffin is a former MTV presenter and by far the most recognizable member of the group. The daughter of an Israeli mother of Yemenite descent and a Catholic American father who converted to Judaism, she said she volunteered to dispel the notion that Israelis were intolerant of minorities.

“Israel has its problems like anywhere else, but it’s a place where communication does exist,” Griffin said.

Critics have said out that the initiative ignores the divides along ethnic and religious lines within Israel between Jews and non-Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and the religiously observant and secular.

Comedians Shay and Dror on their daily radio talk show, for instance, poked fun at the initiative by comparing it to an Israeli entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual music competition whose participants are notorious for pulling PR stunts aimed at winning over the audience.

“We should send a gay, an Arab and Becky Griffin to the Eurovision to represent us,” they said in jest.

Griffin shrugged off the criticism on Monday, saying the speakers represented a genuine effort to shine a light on the heterogeneous nature of Israeli society.

“It’s obvious they’ll look for the yellow journalism angle,” she said of the media.

A representative of the Public Diplomacy Ministry said the group wasn’t supposed to represent a perfect cross-section of society, but rather give voice to aspects of it that aren’t usually seen or head abroad.

Edelstein said the group’s aim was to promote sophisticated thinking. “If people emerge from the talks thinking that the situation here is much more complicated than they thought, then that would be a success,” he said.