Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Israeli students embark on ‘hasbara’ journey to UK campuses
"We want them to see we don’t have horns – we are ordinary people who live in a complex area," says group’s founder.
Twenty-four young Israelis will leave Thursday for a 10-day trip to what some would consider the lion’s den of anti-Israel propaganda and incitement – British university campuses – to combat anti-Israel messages students there are receiving from Israel Apartheid Week activities.
More importantly, they hope their presence will humanize Israelis in the eyes of British students.
“We want to let people see that we don’t have horns and we don’t have pitchforks – we are ordinary people who live in a very complex area,” said Alon Kimhi, the founder of a new independent hasbara (public diplomacy) organization.
While in Britain, Kimhi and his fellow Israelis, mostly students between the ages of 25 and 30, will give talks defending Israel on six campuses (the school names cannot be divulged due to security concerns).
They will also be introducing British students to Israeli foods, visiting the House of Commons and speaking with British Parliament members, and meeting with Jewish communal leaders such as UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Most British university students who meet Kimhi and the other Israeli delegation members will find themselves interacting with Israelis for the first time, said Oliver Worth, chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students.
Worth, who made aliya from Britain last year, put Kimhi in contact with a WUJS affiliate, the Union of Jewish Students of the UK and Ireland, which is handling the tour logistics.
“This is the first time the UJS has embarked on an honest, open relationship with a group of Israeli students who are unaffiliated [with] any organization,” said Carly McKenzie, UJS campaigns director, who added that local Jewish students were eager to host the Israelis in their homes and Hillel centers.
“I work all over the world, and from my experience, in terms of delegitimization of Israel and Israel Apartheid Week, Britain is the worst,” said Worth. “After their first event, word will get out and they will be met by quite a challenge. They’ve prepared well, but it will come as a surprise how hostile the atmosphere is.”
Kimhi said he was not afraid, noting that “there are security measures we are taking.”
The group’s preparation included a debating exercise run by Foreign Ministry professionals, and a weekend of training seminars held at Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moriah campus two weeks ago, paid for by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The professionals who worked with the students included Anne Herzberg, NGO Monitor’s legal adviser, and Yair Zivan, a former UJS campaigns director and cofounder of Kol Voice Seminars.
Kimhi and his fellow Israeli representatives paid most of their airfares themselves, though the student unions at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev and the Weizmann Institute of Science provided some funding.
“It’s a lot of money for a student, and a lot of time and preparation,” said Roi Wolf, the group’s spokesman. “We are spending a week and a half in England, but it’s not fun time because we’re going to be working.”
Kimhi, 28, established the organization, which does not yet have an official name, three months ago after meeting with a government official who discussed difficulties related to overseas hasbara efforts.
“I thought, ‘Why not try to build a group of students who know about this conflict, start the initiative and go to campuses?’” He spread the word via e-mails to friends and Facebook posts. Although between 50 and 60 people expressed interest in joining, only 23 – sabras as well as olim from the US, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Iran, and Kuwait – were accepted.
“It’s a pilot [program], and I can’t take more people when I don’t know where I’m going,” said Kimhi, an MA student at Tel Aviv University writing his thesis in security studies.
The Foreign Ministry and Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry have provided guidance, but the organization is not affiliated with the government and includes members with both left- and right-wing views, making it easier for the group to accomplish its objectives, said Wolf.
“Our main positions are that Israel is not an apartheid state and that Israel should be a Jewish and democratic country – we’re not getting into whether or not we should be in Judea and Samaria,” he said.
Kimhi decided the group’s inaugural mission would take place in Britain because it costs less for Israelis to travel to Europe than to the US, and because he has connections there. He said he hoped the organization would grow and eventually undertake missions to other countries.
“Next time we’re hoping for not 24 students, but 500,” said Wolf, a 31-year-old aide to National Union MK Arye Eldad, who recently received his MA in logistics from Bar-Ilan University. “We want to show young people in Israel that you can’t cry all the time about Israel’s image in the world, but you should take the initiative and do something.”
Kimhi, Wolf and the other activists are focusing on combating anti-Israel propaganda overseas, but Israeli Apartheid Week events are also taking place in Israel.
The Coalition of Women for Peace and Tel Aviv University campus organizations screened a film about the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, and held a panel discussion at the Saraya Theater in Jaffa on Wednesday evening.
“The main problem is coming from England, so it’s more symbolic for a group [of Israelis] to go to England than Jaffa, and here there are many pro-Israel organizations’” as opposed to abroad, said Kimhi.
The delegation members will post updates from their trip to Britain on their Facebook page, entitled “What Is RAEL.”