By MYRON LOVE
There are undoubtedly many people who ascribe to the stereotype that all Israeli Jews are Caucasian and of European background. One of the purposes of StandWithUs Canada’s recent campus WordSwap tour is to show the real, varied face of Israel. To that end, three Israeli students from the Interdisciplinary Centre at Herzlia – Rawan Agbaria, Yonatan Eyov, and Omri Zada – put in appearances in Winnipeg at both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg on Monday, November 25, seeking to engage local students in informal conversation about Israel and clear up some of the stereotypes and misrepresentations.
(Students Supporting Israel and Hillel Winnipeg participated with StandWithUs Canada for the program on Winnipeg campuses.)
The trio are among the hundreds of Israeli university students – representing different ethnic, religious and racial communities –who have been recruited and trained – under the auspices of StandWithUs’s Emerson Fellowship program – to travel to campuses in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom to educate students about Israel. This is the fourth WordSwap tour in Canada in five years.
“I am a Muslim,” Agbaria says. “People don’t realize that 20% of the population of Israel are Arabs. And we enjoy the same rights of citizenship of Jewish Israelis. There are Arab Members of the Knesset and there is an Arab Christian among Israel’s Supreme Court justices.”
Eyov, for his part, is originally from Ethiopia and came to Israel as part of Israel’s repatriation of Ethiopia’s 2,000-year-old Jewish community. He is also gay and actively involved in Israel’s LGBTQ community.
Meryle Kates, the executive director of StandWithUs Canada, was quoted as saying in a recent article in the Canadian Jewish News that “WordSwap (which was started in 2013) was created to engage students in dialogue about the real Israel and has been an excellent Israel education and advocacy project.”
The delegates, according to the CJN report, are StandWithUs campus fellows in Israel who have served in the IDF. Zada, Eyov and Agbaria were among nine Israeli Emerson Fellows who arrived in Toronto on November 8. Over a period of two weeks, the Israelis – in small groups, visited a total of 15 campuses in Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba. They also spoke in high schools and synagogues, and to community gatherings.
Over a period of two weeks, the Israelis visited McGill, Concordia, the University of Toronto, Ryerson, York, Seneca College, Queen’s, Western, Carleton, the University of Ottawa, the University of Guelph, and the University of Waterloo. Winnipeg was the last stop.
“Although we have spoken to Jewish community groups in synagogues, high schools (such as Gray Academy) and through Hillel, our primary focus has been to inaugurate informal conversations with students at the universities over coffee,” Zada explains.
Agbaria adds that in the smaller communities the Israelis have visited, many of the students have little awareness about the ongoing conflict and don’t know a lot about Israel.
“The reception that we have received has been generally positive,” she says.
Eyov pipes up that “the beauty of WordSwap is that we get to talk about the Israel we know and generate questions about our country in an informal setting.”
Eyov adds that the Israeli visitors don’t expect to be able to change minds when dealing with hardcore opponents of Israel. “At York University a week earlier, I got into a two-hour discussion with a Palestinian student,” he recounts. “In the end, we both agreed to disagree. The point though, is that we were able to carry on the conversation in a respectful manner.”
He adds that while some students who he has encountered are concerned about attending York University due to reports about recent anti-Semitic incidents, the visiting Israelis didn’t encounter any negative behavior during their visit to York.