How a Latino Anti-Israel College Student Turned Israel Activist

Some college students look for causes to take a position on. They wear them as symbols of their benevolence and self-righteousness. I was one of those.

I was the negative stereotype of a social justice activist, latching on to superficial ideas about incredibly complex issues. As a progressive liberal, there were many things I hated about the world, and Israel was at the top of the list.

I grew up in Colombia as a Protestant Christian loving Israel and learning about it on a weekly basis. But in college, I learned to hate Israel. I knew the significance of ancient Israelites for Christianity, but I hated the modern Israelites. I collected and internalized the labels connected to Zionism and the Jewish State: apartheid, occupation force, human rights violators and even terrorists.

Terrorism was a sensitive issue for me. My family came to the United States in 2006 seeking political asylum and we were blessed to receive it. I grew up in a particularly violent region of Colombia where armed conflict took many lives.

In my 14 years there, I became almost numb to the horror. People being murdered by hit-men on the streets, kidnappings, guerrilla raids, bombs, terror attacks on the electrical grid, and military checkpoints were ordinary. Violence was the “norm” and everyone was traumatized. I left Colombia, but its nightmares didn’t leave me.

This is precisely why I hated Israel. At university, where I “learned” how Israel’s army killed innocent civilians to steal their land and bombed innocent children indiscriminately in Gaza. My heart ached seeing the images of dead Palestinians and I was even once told by a Jewish professor: Israel treats Palestinians like the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) treat your people: without mercy. He proved to me that even Jews condemned Israel, so I must’ve been right.

I became a passionate victim of confirmation bias, seeking media articles that reinforced my anti-Israel predisposition. My poor mother sometimes tried to interject a more nuanced point of view. But, what did she know compared to my professors!  I shouted at her, “Mom, look at these heartless Israelis and their checkpoints in a land that doesn’t belong to them.”  Perplexed at what took over her son, my mother prayed that one day a miracle would happen that would lead me to change my mind.

Her prayer was answered.

Hyper-involved and serving in multiple leadership positions around campus, I became the first Latino to serve as Student Body President of Georgia State University. I was even awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in January 2015 for “promoting multiculturalism.”

Shortly after inauguration as president, I received an email that would change my life forever.

A group of Israeli students who were working with StandWithUs invited me to participate in a program for student leaders to visit Israel and experience the country with their own eyes. I was excited to see the Christian holy sites but also to witness the apartheid for myself and come back as a hero who went to the mouth of hell and lived to tell the story.

It didn’t take long after landing in Israel for me to be dumbfounded, seeing how foolish I had been for so long. Everything I thought I knew was a complete lie. I was amazed by the diversity of Israel’s society.  I was introduced to many historical facts unknown to me, such as that Mizarahi Jews had to flee Arab lands where they were persecuted. I was mind-blown by the stories of Matan, our photographer whose family had to flee Yemen where Jews still face oppression. I was brought to tears when Keren, one of the trip’s organizers told me about her family’s experiences in Ukraine. Suddenly, my eyes were open to the essence of Israel: a home to those who were homeless for millennia.

I saw that my family story is the story of Israel. Although my family cannot return to our homeland due to the unlivable violence there, Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people who returned to gain ownership of their destiny.  They built an admirable society. I realized that I had been a Zionist all along, that I supported the rights of indigenous people to self-determination in their homeland. I stopped hating Herzl and realized that he was the Jewish people’s Simón Bolivar.

During 10 days, we toured Israel and the West Bank, we spent time with Ethiopians, Arab Israelis, Jews of all kinds, Palestinians, Bedouins, politicians, victims of terror, Holocaust survivors and even got to party at a Latino dance-club in Tel Aviv. I fell in love with this unbelievable country and educated myself about the issues through intense academic lectures from the experts.

I returned home, loud and proud. I wanted to share with the world that Israel is a beacon of hope and liberty.

But this did not go well. On Twitter, someone wished they could burn me in an oven after I took a stand against terrorism. Some published an open letter denouncing me as “racist” and requested I remain neutral on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I was threatened with impeachment and was asked to justify my presumably “inaccurate stance” on the issue.

I was afraid because I knew I was right – Israel is not an apartheid state – but I didn’t know how to say it.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who supported me and helped me overcome this situation. Lauren, the National Associate Director of Campus Affairs for StandWithUs, met me in person to help me improve at answering tough questions and having difficult conversations about Israel. My campus Hillel Director helped me to gain the confidence to defend the truth. And many other friends encouraged me to stand for what is true and to not be afraid.

It has been more than a year since I first visited Israel and a lot has changed because of my passion for Israel. I am now the Midwest Campus Coordinator for StandWithUs, based out of Chicago. I train, lead and support other students who are faced with substantial challenges.

Grateful that I was able to see the truth and overcome my misguided hatred for Israel, I only hope that I am able to help more people free their minds from hateful thought patterns and selective morality regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If I can achieve my goal, it will be the only badge I want to earn.

Sebastian Parra became the Midwest Campus Coordinator for StandWithUs after graduating from Georgia State University in May 2016.