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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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Israeli students aim to dispel myths about home

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WordSwap’s Muhamed Heeb speaks in Toronto about living as part of a minority culture in Israel. [Cara Stern photo]

A group of Israeli students visited Canada last month, a week ahead of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), to try to spread the word that what people see in mainstream media doesn’t necessarily represent Israel.

WordSwap was formed just three months ago, but the group of 17 volunteers have already embarked on their first outreach trip to spark dialogue about Israel by meeting with students of all backgrounds on Ontario university campuses and at McGill University in Montreal.

They arrived Feb. 21, and met with several groups on various campuses. At the University of Toronto, they held a session to educate listeners about diversity in Israel, with a discussion that featured five of the volunteers. They were all Israelis, but the mix included Jews, Druze and Bedouin.

“The only thing we agree on is that Israel has the right to exist. Other than that, we can argue about everything,” said Nachi Brodt, a 24-year-old Montreal native who moved to Israel when he was seven years old. “If it wasn’t for that 12-hour flight, I could easily be sitting… with the other side of the table.”

Raya Azmi described life as a Druze Israeli-Arab as somewhat challenging. She said people sometimes challenge her, asking how she could feel comfortable living as an Arab in Israel, but she sees herself as proof of peace and democracy in a country where she is free to practise her religion and celebrate her culture.

Ruthie Berber said she joined the group to try to counter the hatred she experienced when she was 16. She had moved to Israel when she was 15, and the next year, she visited her native city of London, England. She introduced herself to a friend of a friend in London and said she lived in Israel, and he responded by spitting and calling her a dirty terrorist.

“I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t express how shocked I was,” she said. “I saw something that terrified me: a hatred that I could not understand where it was coming from.”

She said peace could be achieved through dialogue, which is why she opposes ideas like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and IAW.

“We wanted people to be a little more open minded before they participate in an event that just promotes blind hatred, and maybe get to know a little more about Israel before they start proclaiming apartheid and genocide without real backing,” she said.

The response has been good, she said, adding that it’s given her the chance to introduce herself and her friends and tell their stories to people she probably wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Brian Lee, a student who attended the discussion, said it gave him an opportunity to learn about a country he knew little about.

“I thought [this] was one of those unique experiences that’s very hard to come by,” said the third-year commerce student at University of Toronto. “It was enlightening. I didn’t know a lot about Israel as a country, and I thought it was really informative.”

“We’re trying to have conversation and dialogue with people, sharing a couple of stories, talking about experiences in Israel,” Brodt said, adding that the conflict isn’t their only focus. Instead, the goal is to have a conversation with students simply to humanize Israelis.

“I hope we will hear each other, and speak to each other… and support each other,” he said.

The WordSwap team were in Canada from Feb. 21 to March 3. Jewish organizations who helped them co-ordinate their trip included Hillel, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, among others. IAW is March 4 to 8 in Canada this year.

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