(February 25, 2020 / JNS) Itay Green, 16, wants to improve the way Israel is perceived by people outside the country.
When traveling with his family to visit British relatives in London or even to the United States, the Tel Aviv resident said he’s heard horrible things about Israel and disapproval when he mentioned where he’s from. It bothered him so much he felt he had to do something about it.
Merav Habte, 16, from Ma’ale Adumim, whose parents were born in Ethiopia, wanted to learn about the rise of anti-Semitism in the world and how to counter it, as well as ways of expressing her own personal stories about Israel and her family’s experiences to others.
That’s why they signed up for an initiative, started in November by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, called Tevel (“universe” in Hebrew), which focuses on teaching Israeli high-schoolers about leadership and diplomacy—namely, how to present Israel accurately abroad.
The participants, all in 10th grade, meet weekly either in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and hear from speakers—many of them StandWithUs alumni or team members—about Israel’s history, development, economy and perception, among other topics.
Some of the subjects Green and Habte, along with other teens in the program, analyze include how to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate criticism about Israel; the image of Israel from an outside perspective; the goals of the BDS movement; complexities in Israeli society and how they appear outside of the country; Israel’s history in an activist’s perspective; minorities in Israel; debate skills and how to answer tough questions about Israel; how to speak in front of a camera; and the history of the United Nations, with its biases and often negative influences on Israel, and about its policies and military.
Muhammad Zuabi, an Arab-Israeli soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, spoke to the students about his decision to defend his homeland, the eventual support he got from his parents—despite their initial shock and confusion—and also how the fight for Israel’s right to exist is “not only a Jewish fight, but an Israeli fight,” said Green.
“The goal of Tevel is to be an educational platform that gives young Israeli leaders a place to grow as leaders with a strong connection to their country,” its director, Alon Sternberg, told JNS. “I want to teach the students about the challenges that Israel face in the global arena and how to respond. I want to find the young passionate students that won’t have the chance to express themselves in school and give them a chance to blossom.”
Currently, 40 students are enrolled in the program, half girls and half boys, with half from Tel Aviv and half from Jerusalem.
‘Get the message across in the most optimal way’
Field trips complement the lectures and in-class learning. During a recent visit to the Knesset, for example, they met with Giora Furdis, a spokesperson of the Israeli election committee who offered ideas about how to make the voting process easier.
Participants must also volunteer to boost their hands-on knowledge of Israel’s culture, heritage, history and demographic composition to use in sharing personal stories and experiences abroad. Some students collect and donate food to those who can’t afford meals; others work with Holocaust survivors, young children or those with special needs.
Green has been volunteering at a senior-care facility near Tel Aviv for a month now. He said he has been inspired by the residents, including one man who was 14 when he helped with the war effort in 1948, just as the State of Israel was established. “The incredible things that he did when he was 14 I can’t imagine doing when I’m even 18,” acknowledged Green. “I’m just generally in awe of the amazing stuff that they’ve done.”
As for Habte, she and a friend are starting their own project, where a chef will teach Arab and Jewish children how to cook each other’s cuisi
nes in an effort to improve relations and stress commonalities of living in the Middle East.
Tevel participants attend different high schools in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and come from diverse backgrounds and beliefs, both religious and secular. What unites them is their passion for Israel and the desire to help tell Israel’s story to the world. The students are encouraged to use English to communicate with non-Hebrew speakers when traveling outside of Israel.
During one session focused on “answering tough questions,” students practiced (and then were coached on) how to respond to accusations against Israel, such as it being a racist country, an “apartheid state” and not a democracy.
Green remembers practicing in class how to respond to the claim that the West Bank is “the largest prison on earth,” run by Israel.
He said students were taught why the security wall was erected in the first place—to help protect Israeli civilians against violence and terrorism encouraged by Palestinian leadership—and step-by-step techniques on countering such arguments to “get the message across in the most optimal way,” including making sure that askers not feel attacked or offended, so they can really listen to responses.
“At first, we need to sympathize with them,” said Habte. “Tell them, ‘OK, this is a really good question’ and try to get to know the person first. That’s how we’ll get people to listen to us.”
The session on how to answer tough questions has been Habte’s favorite in the program so far and also one of the most important things she has ever learned, she told JNS.
She recalled an instance in Chicago when someone told her that Israel does not exist—that it’s really Palestine. Habte said, “To be honest, I had no idea what to say. I was just shocked and quiet. So this session really helped me know what I need to do. Now I have more confidence in myself that I know what to say and how to respond.”
She also appreciated hearing from Charlotte Korchak, director of international student programs at StandWithUs, who compared the Jewish state’s history with Israel’s image around the world, and focused on the country’s ancestral roots—topics not explored in a typical high-school history class, stressed Habte.
‘Expressing personal stories from our point of view’
The program is also geared to emphasize and develop valuable life skills.
“Every other session deals with how to speak in front of people—whether it’s debate skills, or body language and how to move yourself in space, and move your arms in order to get your message across in the most optimal way,” explained Green. “We recently did a session about how to answer really tough questions about Israel and learned that sometimes you have to admit that you don’t really know the answer, which is important. If you pretend you know the answer for everything when in fact you don’t, it gives the wrong message across. That’s a good thing to learn. Also how to be in front of a camera, give a speech or statement, and even this interview right now is highly effective by the skills that I acquired there.”
He said his favorite part about Tevel is the open forum that leaves opportunity for a wide range of discussions—whether it’s about minority groups in Israel or even the Australian bushfires—because it keeps the sessions interesting and “very stimulating.”
“The program is not just about coming and listening to lectures every week. It’s about expressing personal stories from our point of view,” added Habte.
Sternberg said that young people “have to confront the issues that they see on social media, and they have questions. And in the educational system, they don’t talk about these kinds of issues. They teach them things they need to know about [Israel’s] history, but they don’t talk about it from a strategic point of view or from an activist point of view.”
“Some kids have an interest in being involved in politics one day, and they know a lot more than most grown-ups, and this program challenges them,” he said. “It gives them a place to structure their own point of view for the future.”
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