Eight Israelis who identify as Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Bedouin were in Toronto last week as part of a program called WordSwap, hoping to get the last word on the Israeli apartheid debate.
Flown in by StandWithUs Canada, a non-profit, pro-Israel advocacy group, Orit Tepper, Rabea Bader and Muhamed Heeb told The CJN about the message they hope to send to students who are inundated with dishonest, anti-Israel rhetoric on campus.
Heeb, a 27-year-old Bedouin Muslim who participated in the WordSwap program when it ran for the first time last year, said he was happy to have another opportunity to tour Ontario universities to dispel some of the damaging myths perpetuated by Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) organizers.
“I wanted to meet the Canadian students and tell them the truth. Last year, I met a lot of students… I keep in touch with many of the students from last year, and this is one of my goals – to bring our image of Israel… Some did not know there are Arabs in Israel. A lot of people were surprised,” said Heeb, a University of Haifa student who is obtaining his master’s in public policy.
The WordSwap team travelled to the University of Toronto, York University, the University of Windsor, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, where they held tabling sessions and engaged students in informal conversation, answered challenging questions and shared personal stories about their service in the Israel Defence Forces.
The Israeli-born Tepper, a co-founder of WordSwap who lived in Toronto from 1989 until 2005 and attended York before she moved back to Israel, said she understands how difficult it is for Jewish students to cope with anti-Israel rhetoric on campus.
“As a student at York… it was almost impossible to focus on my education. You were either indifferent to what was going on around you, or you took a stand and it affected your ability to learn and to focus on what you needed to focus on,” she said, adding that she served as Hillel’s Israeli affairs co-chair.
“When I went back to Israel and I started studying there, I didn’t have any issues on campus. It was non-political. I studied with Christians, Muslims, Israeli-Arabs, side by side, and we never spoke politics.”
She said although she returned to Israel, she didn’t want to forget the Jewish students who still faced anti-Israel events on a regular basis.
“Our goal is not to focus on politics on campus. We answer questions, we learn about the students we meet and we share with them our experiences in Israel,” Tepper said.
“We want people, who maybe haven’t had an opportunity to meet an Israeli, an Arab-Israeli, or a Jewish-Israeli… to turn around and say, I have an Israeli friend,” she said.
“Most of the people we talk to are people from the Middle East, from Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Syria, from Lebanon. To them, Israel is just an entity – they call it Little Satan – and when they meet one of us, they can’t help but think, ‘Well, you’re not so bad.’”
Bader, a 23-year-old Tel Aviv University student studying for his bachelor’s in computer science and economics, said he met a number of people at U of T who were shocked to learn that Arabs live in Israel.
“I said, ‘I’m living proof,’” he said, going so far as to converse with them in Arabic to convince them further.
“I’ve travelled a lot, and I’ve been called [names] when they learn that I’m from Israel,” said Bader, a member of Israel’s 125,000-strong Druze community.
“I see how Israel is misrepresented in the media… They’re accusing Israel of apartheid… and you know it’s not true, but if you don’t stand up and say it’s not true, a lot of people are going to believe these lies.”
Heeb and his fellow WordSwap participants attended an IAW event last week at U of T, where he said he witnessed first hand that IAW organizers aren’t interested in dialogue.
“I asked them a lot of questions, but they didn’t answer any of them. They wanted to boycott Ben-Gurion University, so I said, ‘Listen guys, Ben-Gurion University has the most Arab girls, Bedouin girls, studying there, more than [schools in] Arab countries.’ I told them I was from the University of Haifa. I’m Arab. I’m doing my master’s, and my faculty would not be able to exchange the knowledge that we have. But they didn’t answer [me],” Heeb said.
Tepper said that every time one of the WordSwap members took the microphone, organizers stopped recording.
“They censored them. A member of our group said, ‘I’m an Israeli Arab, my grandparents have lived there, I’ve lived there, I have full rights, I’ve served in the IDF, I work in Tel Aviv, I don’t face discrimination, so how can you say that if you haven’t even been there?’”
Bader said he thinks the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is “a joke.”
“All I hear is propaganda, lies, and seriously, I thought they wanted to boycott Israel because they want peace, but they’re not talking about peace… Peace or no peace, they’re boycotting Israel,” Bader said.
Tepper said she feels the majority of the Jewish community still doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation faced by pro-Israel students on Canadian campuses.
“The Jewish community needs to realize what is going on. We need their support. We can’t have just a few students carrying everything on their backs, and that’s how I felt when I was at York. That we were working around the clock and we were by ourselves,” Tepper said.