When 13-year-old Gabriel Pais and his friends in Brussels, Belgium, play basketball, their moves aren’t observed only by the referee: The boys are watched by Belgian soldiers and private Israeli security guards. It’s a reality the teen says he’s gotten used to in an era of violent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks worldwide. But for his bar mitzvah project, Pais hopes to change that — which is why he launched YAFI, or Young Advocates for Israel.
The group’s purpose, Pais told The Times of Israel over the phone as he wrapped up a busy two-week trip to the Jewish state, is to reach out to fellow European young people and give them a more complete picture of Jews and Israel than what they might see in the media. This, he said, could go a long way towards helping familiarize people with the true Israel and combating racism.
In the six weeks since YAFI was launched, Pais’s videos — which he posts to the group’s Facebook page — have gotten tens of thousands of views, and he was even invited to meet with Israel’s ambassador to Belgium. He also spoke to multiple Israeli and Hebrew-language media outlets over the course of his Israel trip.
“I didn’t think it would go so fast on the social networks,” Pais said. “All day long I’m getting notifications on social media from people who have seen my posts. I had no idea so many people would see them so quickly.”
Pais posted plenty of videos from his travels around Israel, including a visit to the Gaza border region, a multicultural view of Haifa, and of course the Tel Aviv beachfront. “The beach is my favorite,” Pais said. “That, and Jerusalem.”
It’s far from Pais’s first Israel journey — he’s been visiting two or three times a year since he was a baby, he said, and holds an Israeli passport, since his mother was born there. He also speaks fluent Hebrew, which in addition to his English, Dutch, and French — which he speaks at home — makes him an ideal spokesperson for his cause.
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Israelis, and Jews in general in Belgium, he said, are “too afraid to be proud of who we are,” he said. “[In Belgium,] we never go outside with the flag of Israel, but every day we see Spanish people with the Spanish flag. Why can’t we be proud of who we are?”
“We have security not only in our school, but outside in the bus we always have people with us. Why should we always have security with us everywhere? Everyone needs to know that we’re human just like everyone else, and just as we respect the Spanish people, we need to respect the Israeli people,” Pais continued.
“What the European media is saying is just not fair – we always see boycotts against Israel and other things that are not true about Israel, and it’s not acceptable to say things like that. It is our duty to defend ourselves, us youth in Europe, against the lies of the media,” he said.
The young teen is grateful to his parents for their assistance with the project. “My parents help me a lot,” he said. “They film me and help me with Facebook, but I created everything and they’re giving me their support.”
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When he returns to Belgium, Pais is planning to host a YAFI movie night – something he said he discussed with the Israeli ambassador, Emmanuel Nahshon. Going forward, he said he hopes to “continue to fight against anti-Semitism and lies… because I think it’s important.”
Pressed for details on how he might continue his Israel advocacy in his adulthood, the 13-year-old wasn’t rushing to skip ahead too quickly.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to do tomorrow,” he said, “so I can’t really answer that at the moment.”