Mark Twain is attributed with observing that, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” The best education is through the school of experience. One of the most effective ways of accumulating that experience is through travel, observation and participation. If anyone wants to try and grasp the Israel behind the often sensationalist headlines one needs to experience it in all of its glory and complexity and form ones own opinion. There is simply no other way to feel an attachment to ones Jewish identity, as there is when one stands in Israel and touches the ground and meets the people. There is nothing that one can do in ones Diaspora classroom or synagogue thousands of miles away to give one a feeling for this land and for what this land means to the Jewish people, as well as the achievements and issues Israel is wrestling with.

I recently finished guiding my third “Write on for Israel” (WOFI) Israel mission. This is an Israel trip unlike any other Israel trip. WOFI is composed of American high school juniors and seniors from the Tri-State area. It is a highly acclaimed two-year Israel advocacy course, sponsored by the Jewish Week of New York, aimed at preparing the participants for what can be the anti-Israel battleground of some North American college campuses. The applicants are carefully selected after a rigorous interview process. They come from many different backgrounds of religious affiliation, political beliefs and schooling. There is a mix of Jewish day school, public and private school students. The common factor in this pluralistic group is the students’ love of Israel and desire to receive the knowledge and tools to be effective advocates for the Jewish State.

The advocacy training and instruction on the history of Zionism includes a whole plethora of different presenters ranging from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists to college campus activists. The culmination of the program is a weeklong mission to Israel for the seniors, where, in addition to touring, the group gets to meet IDF soldiers, key journalists and thinkers, both Jewish and Arab, from across the religious and nationalistic spectrum. They are exposed to many different viewpoints. The intense itinerary focuses on Israel as a modern dynamic society full of rich diversity and invites the participants to both grapple with the issues facing Israel and celebrate Israel’s achievements.   The WOFI mission complements both the Jewish identity formation and Israel education of the participants. Deputy Minister Dr. Michael Oren, in a presentation to one of my groups in the Knesset observed that,

What we do on college campuses (regarding pro-Israel advocacy) is too late. The process has to begin in Junior High school”

This year we started in the Golan where we were privileged to meet with Captain Y and watch part of an Armoured Corps Brigade exercise. Captain Y spoke about “Operation Protective Edge” and how much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and the high moral standards of the IDF. A similar theme was discussed next day during a briefing by Lt. Col. (res) David Benjamin, who served as Chief Legal Advisor for the Gaza Strip and as Director of the Strategic and International Branch in the International Law Department of the IDF, and by a further informal meetings a few days later with lone soldiers (who were alumni of the Write On program) in Jerusalem. The soldiers all shared with our group how proud they were to serve in such a moral and ethical army. Hearing from the faces “beneath the helmet” deeply moved the students. Not only did it humanise these young defenders of our land, it broke stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Israeli soldier propagated on North American college campuses and throughout Europe.

Tuvia with Fatima Sarsour, the Palestinian Families Coordinator at SACH. Photo (c) 2018, T. Book

Another stereotype was shattered during our visit to “Save a Child’s Heart” (SACH) at the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon.  SACH provides life-saving cardiac surgery and other life saving procedures for children from developing countries free of charge as well as training local physicians. SACH is, according to the mission statement on its website,

An Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, colour, gender or financial situation.”

During our visit to the Wolfson Medical Centre Tamar Shapira, Director of International & Public Relations, Fatima Sarsour, an Israeli-Arab Social worker and the Palestinian Families Coordinator, and Dr. Sagi Assa, Interventional Pediatric Cardiologist, who takes part in the weekly Palestinian paediatric cardiology clinics addressed us.   Fatima said to my group: “this place is about people coming together and sharing our common humanity.” So much for “Apartheid Israel.” Our group then went to volunteer at the recuperation center where the children and their parents or caregivers from developing countries are either preparing or recuperating from the surgery that will allow them to live normal lives. Many of the WOFI group were deeply moved and asked why there is so little awareness and appreciation in the outside world for all the good that Israel does for the world.

WOFI participants volunteering at the SACH children’s home in Holon. Photo (c) 2018, T. Book

Daniel Gordis succinctly summed it up when he stated that, in addition to striving for the benefit our own citizens,

This country has become a country, with all of its imperfections, that sees as part of its purpose as looking out for other people.”

It has been a fascinating year for me personally to observe these bright teenagers who all self-selected into this program. Despite their different backgrounds, religiously and politically, there was a tremendous atmosphere of mutual toleration and acceptance. In addition they learnt that Zionism is not a monolithic movement that brokers no argument. Rather it is multi-faceted and dynamic, with factions on the left and right, religious and secular, and is a living movement whose uniting link is love for Israel. The “Write On for Israel” participants will be able to take with them to the university campus the magic of their visit to Israel and the three rules for advocacy; knowledge (gained through both learning and first-hand experience), passion and delivery.

WOFI participants at Yad Vashem. Photo, (c) T. Book, 2018

Tuvia is the Director of Education for Write On for Israel and author of For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies (Fifth edition, Koren 2017)