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Pleading Israel’s case on campus? It helps if you’re not Jewish

As non-Jewish Israelis increasingly give ‘pro-Israel’ talks at US universities, campus activists say they provide the most credible defense of Jewish state’s record on minority rights

During an October 2015 advocacy conference at Northeastern University in Boston, George Deek of Israel's foreign service speaks about the Jewish state (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
During an October 2015 advocacy conference at Northeastern University in Boston, George Deek of Israel's foreign service speaks about the Jewish state (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

BOSTON — As a Muslim Israeli-Arab woman, 21-year-old Lian Najami is not the pro-Israel speaker traditionally brought in by Jewish campus groups.

But last fall, she visited US campuses to discuss activism, community organizing, and what she pointedly calls “shared existence” — as opposed to co-existence — in Israel.

“Based on my experience, I think that hearing stories about Israel and life in Israel from a non-Jew has something powerful to it,” said Najami in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. The Haifa-raised Najami attended a Christian high school and volunteered at an Arab-Jewish co-existence center for many years.

“Americans and the rest of the world are used to hearing arguments from Jews and sometimes tend to ignore them,” said Najami. “We can present arguments and stories from someone who is not a Jew, and yet strongly explain and deliver the truth about Israel,” she said.

Currently a student of political science and international relations in Hamburg, Germany, Najami wears several activist hats, including being open about a chronic nervous system disorder which affects her mobility. But as an Arab woman from a liberal Muslim family, she did not realize her experiences in Haifa were anomalous until spending time outside the city.

“I was used to seeing all the different religions tolerating each other and living all as one in Haifa, only to later understand that it has always been a joint effort of all the Haifa residents to strive for a more peaceful and respectful lifestyle,” said Najami.

Haifa-born Lian Najami gives a talk at Northeastern University in Boston in October 2015 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Haifa-born Lian Najami gives a talk at Wellesley College outside Boston in November 2014 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

 

Today from coast to coast, non-Jewish, pro-Israel speakers are taking to campus squares with some of Israel’s best “advocacy.” These Israeli Arabs, Druze, and other non-Jewish voices speak for Israel by example — and rarely about war or politics. Some of Israel’s minorities visit North America to shine a light on women’s rights, gay rights, or religious rights in the Jewish state; others to illustrate how non-Jews contribute to every sphere of Israeli society.

And according to pro-Israel student activists, Israelis such as Najami play an important role today in shattering misconceptions about Israel that are widespread on campus, including those proliferated by the anti-Israel BDS movement — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

“Israel has done nothing but help shape the strong person I am and provided me the help I needed to fully succeed in the Middle East and in life,” said Najami, who was a featured speaker in Forbes’ “30 Under 30” conference last month.

Whether a pro-Israel group’s plan calls for a Palestinian-American entrepreneur (Bashar Masri), or the Jewish state’s first Bedouin diplomat (Ishmael Khaldi), the roster is impressive. Students can fly in a Zionist Muslim living in Canada (Kasim Hafeez), one of Israel’s top Arab journalists (Khaled Abu Toameh), or — if funding permits — the so-called “son of Hamas” himself, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who became a Shin Bet operative.

George Deek, who has held Israeli diplomatic posts in Nigeria and Finland, at Northeastern University in October 2015 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
George Deek, who has held Israeli diplomatic posts in Nigeria and Norway, at Northeastern University in October 2015 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

One Christian Israeli-Arab capturing hearts and minds on campus is 33-year old George Deek, who has held top Israeli diplomatic posts in Norway and Nigeria. Born in Jaffa, Deek was an attorney in Tel Aviv until joining Israel’s foreign service in 2008. Like Najami, he participated in Arab-Jewish projects while growing up, including delegations to the US and Europe.

Two years ago, Deek delivered a speech in Oslo called by some “the best remarks” ever given by an Israeli diplomat.

“In the Arab world, the Palestinian refugees — including their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren — are still not settled, aggressively discriminated against, and in most cases denied citizenship and basic human rights,” said Deek in Oslo.

“The collaborators in this crime are no other than the international community and the United Nations,” said Deek. “Rather than doing its job and help the refugees build a life, the international community is feeding the narrative of the victimhood,” said the diplomat.

New faces in an old battle

Palestinian human rights leader Bassem Eid has challenged the Palestinian Authority's role in the conflict with Israel (Wikimedia Commons)
Palestinian human rights leader Bassem Eid has challenged the Palestinian Authority’s role in the conflict with Israel (Wikimedia Commons)

On campus, a speaker like Deek can attract hundreds of students to a central location, especially when co-organized by other, non-Jewish groups. For Israel bashers, the high turn-out and coalitions are irritating enough, but the PR that follows — such as a pro-Israel Palestinian speaker appearing on the cover of the campus newspaper — can trounce the propaganda advanced by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), including during its “Israeli Apartheid Weeks.”

Anti-Israel activists have also been known to overplay their hand and inadvertently “help” the opposition with their own rancid behavior.

A case in point occurred three months ago, when Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, received threats of death and violence from SJP members during his speech at the University of Chicago. As usual, Eid’s remarks were highly critical of the Palestinian Authority, and of some Palestinian leaders’ fixation on destroying Israel at the expense of helping Palestinians.

“On the division of the Palestinians I will never, ever accuse Israel,” responded Eid to a questioner’s demand that he blame Israel for dividing Palestinians among themselves. “When will we, the Palestinians, start taking responsibility for what is going on to ourselves?” said Eid in the February speech. Eventually police were brought in to calm Eid’s Chicago audience.

Organized by center-left groups including the campus J-Street U chapter, the disrupted event was “powerful and important and heard around the world because of what the SJP students did there,” said Ben Gladstone, an incoming junior at Brown University and officer of Brown Students for Israel (BSI).

At the Brown campus in Providence, Rhode Island, a “Nakba Day” organized by students ruffled feathers earlier in May. A statement from Gladstone’s group called the event “deeply distorted,” adding that “non-Jewish members of SJP who have in the past threatened BSI members with violence were invited into the Hillel building.” During the gathering, activists demanded a “right of return” to dismantle Jewish statehood, and accused Israel of perpetrating genocide in 1948.

Although the Nakba-fest grabbed Jewish headlines, it was actually a timid counterweight to hundreds of students who heard “more credible” viewpoints on Israel from non-Jewish speakers at Brown this year, said Gladstone.

Israeli-Druze leaders participate in a mission to Boston, where they spoke at Northeastern University in October 2015 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Israeli-Druze leaders participate in a mission to Boston, where they spoke at Northeastern University in October 2015 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“It is so powerful for students to speak with someone who has all kinds of questions about Israeli policy and is not a token zealous Zionist,” said Gladstone, a Judaic and Mideast studies major who also heads a Syrian refugee coalition at Brown.

Half a year ago, BSI hosted Najami on the recommendation of pro-Israel students in Boston. According to Gladstone, her remarks were more credible — and more interesting — than those of traditional “hasbara” (advocacy) experts with canned presentations.

‘It is so powerful for students to speak with someone who has all kinds of questions about Israeli policy and is not a token zealous Zionist’

“As a Muslim citizen of Israel, Lian Najami could speak to the positives of living Israel and could complicate the narrative we see on campus a lot of the time,” said Gladstone. “Especially because anti-Israel forces on campus definitely know when to bring in Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans to speak against Israel, it is important we have panels and speakers that are as diverse as those of the anti-Israel forces on campus,” he said.

Another “excellent” non-Jewish speaker who visited Brown was Dr. Salman Zarka, head of Tsfat’s Ziv Medical Center and an Israeli-Druze. Zarka focused on human rights and responding to the crisis in Syria, rather than on his Druze identity, according to Gladstone.

Brown University junior Ben Gladstone (far right) and friends show off their Hebrew shirts in April 2016 (courtesy
Brown University junior Ben Gladstone (far right) and friends show off their Hebrew shirts in April 2016 (courtesy)

“Dr. Zarka is an example of Israel at its best,” said Gladstone, who noted the importance of students understanding that non-Jewish Israelis achieve high positions in military, medical and other fields, including leaders like Zarka, who has treated wounded Syrians admitted to Israel.

“The increasing visibility of non-Jewish Israelis on American college campuses is entirely positive,” said Yehuda Yaakov, Israel’s top diplomat in New England. “Their presence and their passion play an important role in helping students understand Israel’s diverse society, as well as accentuate the advancing process of minority integration taking place in Israel,” said the consul general, whose office facilitated the tours of Deek and Zarka.

“We see them as Israelis sharing their professional experiences,” Yaakov told The Times of Israel. “Their respective work reflects Israel’s embrace of democracy and social equality,” he said.

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