ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Interview'People don’t know 25% of Israel's population is non-Jewish'

Lebanese Israeli advocate on US colleges post-Oct. 7: ‘Many don’t see Israelis as humans’

Embodying the mosaic of Israeli society, Jonathan Elkhoury, an Israeli of Christian Lebanese origin, is on the front line of the Jewish state’s public diplomacy

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Israel advocate Jonathan Elkhoury during a public talk at the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead, Massachusetts, USA, on November 5, 2023 (photo by Harel Madhala, courtesy)
Israel advocate Jonathan Elkhoury during a public talk at the Jewish Community Center in Marblehead, Massachusetts, USA, on November 5, 2023 (photo by Harel Madhala, courtesy)

Jonathan Elkhoury is one of the most prominent non-Jewish advocates for Israel on the international scene. Hailing from a Lebanese Christian family, he moved to Israel in 2001 at age nine as a refugee during the relocation of the South Lebanon Army, which fought alongside the IDF in the First Lebanon War. Today, Elkhoury lives in Haifa.

As a Christian, Lebanese and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he is a self-described minorities’ rights advocate, and has been active since 2017 as a speaker at public diplomacy events and on social media to explain to the world the diversity and complexity that characterizes modern Israel.

He sat down to talk about his activity after a one-week tour of US college campuses that took him with his organization DiploAct to eight major institutions of higher education on the US East Coast, including Harvard, Brandeis, NYU and UPenn, to present to students a different story about Israel than the one they are exposed to in contemporary American academia.

Since he began his career as a public diplomacy adviser in 2017, he has taken part in more than 40 delegations across North America and Europe, many of them organized during Israel Apartheid Week — an event held annually in dozens of universities around the world — to present his personal story in the belief that minorities need to be in the front line of Israeli public diplomacy.

“Whenever Israel opponents attack Israel, they always pull out the minorities argument, and say that we live under apartheid,” he explained. “They claim minorities are subject to different laws and can’t live their lives the way they want. As an Israeli citizen, it hurts me to hear that.”

“I recently met a student who told me that Haifa, the city I live in, is an apartheid city, with separate buses for Jews and Arabs, separate schools and theaters,” he recalled. “And I was like: ‘Wait, what? I studied in a Jewish school. My father works for Egged, the Israeli national bus company. What are you talking about?’”

Pro-Israel advocate Jonathan Elkhoury during a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the President’s House in Jerusalem, June 4, 2023 (Amos ben Gershom/President’s Office)

Speaking of his latest advocacy tour in the US, Elkhoury noted that this time, public meetings were different than usual. While the history of the conflict usually takes center stage, this time he and his delegation decided to focus on the stories of the victims of the October 7 massacre and brought along three Israelis whose friends were slaughtered at the Nova Festival.

In Elkhoury’s view, hostility to Israel often comes from a very deep-seated dehumanizing attitude. “A lot of people don’t see Israelis as human beings. That’s why they go and rip off flyers of kidnapped babies.”

Therefore, he said, “The main goal of our delegation this time was to put names to the numbers, to the 1,200 Israelis who were murdered and the 240 who were kidnapped, and to bring out the human side of the story.”

Commenting on the audiences that attended their public events, Elkhoury said that the aim was not to engage with anti-Israeli activists.

“They wouldn’t know how to combat our message, because we were bringing personal stories. This is in my view one of the best approaches because, at the end of the day, those anti-Israel activists will never try to understand our side, no matter what.”

The real target audience, he explained, was the moderate majority.

“At Brandeis University, for instance, we had a huge presence of Hispanic Christians. In general, I’d say that about 80% of the people don’t really know what is going on in Israel,” he estimated. “These are the people who want to listen to our stories, want to understand more about the situation, and will have questions. ”

“The most common misconception we encountered is that people don’t know that about 25% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish – and we are an inseparable part of Israeli society. We serve in the military, do national service, we have representatives in the Knesset and the Supreme Court.”

Pro-Israel advocate Jonathan Elkhoury during a talk at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, November 8, 2023 (Harel Madhala)

“Anti-Israel activists pick and choose isolated facts, and build their narrative around those. On the other hand, we tell people a complete story about not just Israel, but about the Israelis themselves, and what we are experiencing right now. We tell them about the human life that was lost and the life that we want to continue to have. OK, Israel is not perfect, but we need to put a lot of things into perspective.”

Speaking of the impact of those stories on the audiences, Elkhoury said: “I feel we somehow pull the rug from under their feet, and shake up their world a little bit. We may not bring them to the Israeli side 100%, but we get them to reconsider their preconceived ideas,”  Elkhoury said.

Some of the talks given during Elkhoury’s latest mission specifically addressed American Jewish students.

“A lot of them don’t really have all the information and knowledge to engage in a debate, and a lot of them are even afraid to do something, so we try to be there for them, help them and listen to them.

“We also wanted to give the Jewish community in the States a place where they could mourn, because since October 7, a lot of them have been fighting nonstop to pass the message [of what Israel suffered], and we also gave them more information about what is going on on the ground,” Elkhoury added.

A woman at the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2022, holds up a sign with the biblical phrase ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A point that often resonates with liberal audiences is Elkhoury’s experience as a gay man in Israel.

“I talk a lot about the treatment of the LGBT+ community in Israel in comparison with Lebanon or the rest of the Arab world,” he said.

Israel is known as a gay haven in the Middle East, and Tel Aviv is frequently cited as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. While same-sex marriage is not recognized — nor is marriage for heterosexual couples if performed outside the religious institutions of the spouses’ faith — Israeli LGBTQ+ couples can access nearly all the legal benefits of marriage, including surrogacy. The speaker of the Knesset, Amir Ohana, is openly gay, and so are many of the country’s public figures.

In the Arab world, on the other hand, LGBTQ+ people face limited or highly restrictive rights or outright hostility. Homosexual acts are illegal in much of the region, and legally punishable by death in at least two Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well as in Iran.

Some Middle East countries have shown a relative opening, with Turkey and Lebanon developing embryonic LGBTQ+ rights movements. Both countries, however, have witnessed growing repression, including a crackdown on LGBTQ+ oriented events. In August 2023, two separate draft bills were submitted to the Lebanese Parliament that would explicitly criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults and punish anyone who “promotes homosexuality” with up to three years in prison.

Elkhoury noted that in spite of the fact that LGBTQ+ people are persecuted throughout the Arab Middle East, some in the West blame Israel for the situation in Gaza, where homosexuality is illegal under the criminal code from the British Mandate, still in force. Gay people live in constant fear of persecution from Hamas — and are often forced into heterosexual marriage by their families.

“Since October 7, I have seen many LGBTQ+ organizations on social media claiming that there are no gay rights in Gaza because Gaza is an ‘open-air prison.’” The term is often used to describe the situation under the blockade that Israel and Egypt have enforced on the Strip since 2007 to cripple terror group Hamas and prevent it from arming itself. “So they are claiming it’s Israel’s fault if there are no gay rights in Gaza.”

“Hamas has been controlling Gaza since 2006, they made a coup to make sure they have no opposition. They have been in control ever since, and they are the ones responsible for human rights in Gaza.

“These progressive movements will invariably look for the stronger side and say – they are probably the ones responsible, we are going to go against them and ignore any other factual reality.”

Pro-Israeli advocate Jonathan Elkhoury, of Lebanese descent, holding an Israel-Lebanon flag on Lebanon’s Independence Day, November 22, 2023 (courtesy)

Elkhoury often shares on social media pro-Israel videos in which he speaks Arabic, with a distinctly Lebanese accent. While the comments under those videos are almost invariably offensive, he says that what is important is to gain visibility. Even those videos can open a dialogue, particularly with his native Lebanon, a country that experiences constant security tensions with Israel, especially since the Hezbollah terrorist group escalated rocket attacks against Israel after October 7.

“I speak to many Lebanese online, many message me in private. Many also come up to me at speaking events. Oftentimes, their parents suffered from Palestinian terrorism and fled Lebanon,” he said, referencing the Lebanese civil war sparked by Palestinian insurgents, which claimed the lives of 150,000 between 1975 and 1990, and caused the exodus of about a quarter of a million people.

“This is what connects minorities in the Middle East. We have all been through persecution by terrorist organizations, and we need to support each other. And this is where I come through with my work,” he said.

“The Lebanese today know that Lebanon will not survive a war with Israel, and Hezbollah will bring Lebanon down to its knees. This is why over the last few years, we have heard a few voices from Lebanese politicians calling for some sort of normalization with Israel that may bring Lebanon back to some sort of stability, even if the majority in Lebanon is not supportive of Israel.”

The gas agreement that Israel signed with Lebanon in 2022 to define the maritime border between the two countries and their respective rights to underwater gas reserves “showed to the Lebanese people that Israel does not intend to open hostilities, but when it is provoked, it is going to respond,” Elkhoury continued.

“The Lebanese are not looking to enter into another war. They know that Hezbollah is controlling Lebanon as a proxy to Iran, and they don’t want that. They want their country to be liberated,” he said.

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