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WordSwap copyBy BERNIE BELLAN
Six young Israelis – representing the hugely diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds that make up that country, were in Winnipeg on March 21st as part of the ongoing efforts of the organization known as StandWithUs to reach out to students on university and college campuses in attempting to convey a positive image of Israel.


The six – two women and four men, spoke of their own experiences living in – and in two cases, moving to Israel from other countries. They also spoke of their having engaged with university-aged students in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Kingston and, most recently, Winnipeg.
The program was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, whose president, Laurel Malkin, spoke on behalf of the Federation in welcoming the approximately 125 people who were in the Berney Theatre Wednesday night to listen to the young Israelis.
Prior to the young persons’ presentations, a film about Jewish refugees from Arab lands was shown. The film explained that, prior to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, there were over 1 million Jews living in Arab countries and Iran. Following that war some 680,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in those countries.
Over the succeeding years almost all other Jews left what had been, for many of them, the homes of their ancestors for over 2600 years – dating as far back as the exile of Jews from ancient Israel to Babylonia (now present-day Iraq) in 586 BCE. One particularly fascinating tidbit of information that was mentioned in the film was that in 1920s Baghdad, 40% of the population was Jewish!
The point of the film being shown prior to the six Israeli students talking about WordSwap was to offer some understanding of how, not only was there another refugee situation in the Middle East in addition to the Palestinian one, it was to point out how Israel became a majority Sephardic country over time.
That fact was brought home in a most salient fashion when one of the young Israelis, a member of the Druze community by the name of Eyal Halabby, said that during the course of the six Israelis’ tour of university campuses, on occasion he’s been told that the land occupied by Israel belongs to the Palestinians, and that “all Israelis should go back to Europe.”
Eyal noted that when he explains to the individuals making that assertion that the majority of Israelis are descendants of people who came from Arab countries, the students to whom he has spoken are initially flabbergasted, but are soon willing to engage in meaningful dialogue – especially when Eyal would begin speaking to them in Arabic!
Here though is a quick review of what each Israeli had to say to the audience at the Berney Theatre:
The first to speak was a young woman by the name of Inbar, who said that her parents came to Israel from Egypt.
Inbar said that, after her initial period of service in the Israel Defense Forces, she signed up for officer training and became a captain. Her being a part of WordSwap, Inbar explained, was so that “my friends and I who are speaking on campuses of universities and in high schools are showing the face of Israel.”
Next to speak was the very humourous Itzhak, 26, who said he was the token “Orthodox” member of the group. His family had come to Israel from the United States when he was three, he explained.
 Ithzak told a funny story how, when he and his siblings were very young, they desperately wanted their father to agree to get a dog. Their father agreed, but on one condition: They would not be allowed to watch any TV except for the news at 8:00 at night.
“I really hated that dog,” Yitzhak said. But, until September 2000, the nightly news was nothing more than a mix of “politics, economics, and the weather.”
Then, everything changed when the second intifadeh broke out, and the TV news was dominated by “terror, terror, and terror.
“When I was 16,” Yitzhak continued, “a terrorist came into my high school in Jerusalem and shot eight students; some of them were my friends.”
“Yet,” Itzhak observed, “we are not defined by our anger or our fear; we are defined by our love and our hope…We believe in peace above all.”
Haithem was next to speak. He told the audience that he’s an “Arab-Israeli Bedouin”.
“I’m the most handsome in the group,” he said. (That was a matter of opinion. Take a look at the accompanying picture. Someone else in the group might be able to give Haithem a good run for his money.)
Haithem added that he’s “studying law and government.”
Gili, 24, the other woman in the group, explained that she is originally from Panama.
“I moved to Israel as a teenager,” she said.
“Can you imagine how difficult that is? Who writes from right to left? I still struggle with that,” she said.
The message that she’s been trying to convey to the students whom she has been meeting, Gili said, is that “with education, we can change our future for the better.”
Gilad, 27, told the audience that, unlike Yitzhak, “I had an amazing childhood. I loved my dog! And we were able to watch a lot of TV.”
“I was barely aware of the intifadeh,” Yitzhak said. As for why his life was so good, he pointed to the fact that his family’s roots go back a long way in Israel.
“My great-great grandfather was one of the original 66 founders of Tel Aviv – 100 years ago,” he noted. In fact, he is a ninth-generation Israeli, Yitzhak added.
It was just within the past two weeks though (since the group arrived in Canada) that Yitzhak said, “for the first time I found myself talking to people of different backgrounds.” Some of them were Lebanese, he noted – some were even Palestinians.
“We just sit at a table (when they’re at any of the different universities they’ve been visiting) “and offer coffee and cookies.” (Later, it was explained that there are no posters, no pamphlets, or anything else that would describe who the Israelis are. They simply begin engaging passersby in conversation.)
(We have a short video clip of Yitzhak describing how he’s been initiating conversations with individuals who one might ordinarily expect to be hostile to him – without descending into hostile exchanges. You can see that clip on the Jewish Post & News Facebook page.)
The last member of the group to speak was Eyal Halaby, who noted that he had served in the IDF for nine years.
During his time in Canada, Eyal said that “I’ve met Canadian Arabs who said to me: ‘You’re a traitor. We don’t want to talk to you.’
“I met a Syrian guy who said that. I persuaded him to sit down and have a coffee. We sat for two and a half hours.”
Addressing himself to the members of the audience, Eyal said: “As a former officer in the IDF, I salute you: the soldiers of the Jewish people”. (That guy should be a canvasser for the Combined Jewish Appeal. Boy, can he lay on the schmaltz.)
Following their remarks, the six entertained questions from the audience. Someone asked whether the group had had any really negative experiences during their two weeks in Canada.
Gilad answered, “I only had positive experience on campuses. We stood by our tables – with our coffee and cookies, and nothing bad happened.”
Inbar added that, when they occasionally met Palestinian students, they would say, “I’m Israeli – you’re Palestinian. Then we listened to them and they listened to us…It’s just about connecting with people.”

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