A diverse group of young Israelis who represent the tapestry of Israeli citizens – Jewish, Druze, Muslim, Ethiopian, Bedouin, Orthodox, Reform and LGBTQ – will visit Canada for the first time as part of a program called WordSwap.
“WordSwap was created to engage students in dialogue about the real Israel and has been an excellent Israel education and advocacy project requested each year by student leaders on campuses across Canada,” said Meryle Kates, the executive director of StandWithUs Canada, which has been organizing the program since 2013.
StandWithUs Israel chooses the WordSwap members, then trains them. The delegates are StandWithUs campus fellows in Israel who have served in the IDF and will traverse the globe to engage Canadian students and the community in conversations about the homeland they love. Additionally, they will speak in high schools, synagogues and churches while in the country.
“WordSwap is the brilliant initiative of my friends, Orit Tepper and Talia Dekel, who brought the idea to me,” said Kates. “A natural for StandWithUs Canada, as we believe that education is the road to peace.”
The casual face-to-face student interactions are designed to inspire peaceful conversations and answer challenging questions about their lives in Israel, as well as discuss politics, culture, serving in the army and their families.
“The point of the program is to change hearts and minds on campuses,” said Rebecca Katzman, StandWithUs Canada’s campus director. “There were almost a million Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands. They were ethnically cleansed, so we are trying to talk about these narratives.”
On Nov. 8, nine WordSwap delegates in their 20s will fly to Toronto for two weeks – travelling with Charlotte Korchak, StandWithUs International’s delegations director, along with Katzman, to tour some 15 university campuses in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.
“The delegates will mingle with other students in the hallways and greet them, saying hello in Hebrew, Arabic or English,” explained Katzman. “To encourage conversations, students will be offered a fortune cookie that will contain a fact about Israel.”
WordSwap participant Yonatan Eyov jokingly calls himself “Mr. Minority,” because he is black, Jewish and gay. Eyov’s life motto is to be “happy in your own skin.” Born in a small Jewish village in northern Ethiopia called Kora, Eyov and his family moved to Israel in 1999, eventually settling in Lod. “I grew up in a very poor neighbourhood, which was 80 per cent Arab and 20 per cent Ethiopian,” he said.
Eyov is an active volunteer in the LGBTQ community. He is a counsellor for gay Ethiopian youth between the ages of 14 and 18. “The Ethiopian gay community faces different issues than the general Israeli LGBT community,” said Eyov. “I want to show that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or when you moved here (Israel), you can represent the different faces of Israel.”
The Israeli delegates will engage Canadians about different religions, cultures and minorities, and try to combat anti-Semitism.
“I feel frustrated how Israel is being represented in the media abroad,” said Gal Malul, a WordSwap participant.
Tali Shashua, another participant, said that, “As an Israeli citizen, I have always felt that I have a responsibility to be an ambassador of my country in the world, wherever I go and with whoever I talk to. It is important to me that they hear my story, as an Israeli, first hand. I want to encourage people to open a dialogue, ask questions for better understanding of the facts and my life the way I live it in Israel.”
The delegates hope to convey to Canadian students that they are no different than them.
“I want to give them a glance into my world as an Israeli, the way I have grown up and the way I live today,” said Shashua. “I hope that I will convey the sense of the Israeli experience and foremost, I hope that they will understand that we all want the same thing – to live in peace.”
Malul said that her “goal is for Canadians to get to know Israel a little better from my personal experience and not just base their opinion from the media.… My message: the situation is complicated, but we strive for peace.”