Israel to Outsiders

Our Soldiers Speak Law and Policy Tour participants at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Courtesy of Photoagency)
Our Soldiers Speak Law and Policy Tour participants at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Courtesy of Photoagency)

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity and the privilege to staff the Our Soldiers Speak Law & Policy Tour. After several rounds of interviews, we selected 25 of the top international law students to travel to Israel to see the country for themselves and to visit with top military officials, Knesset members, and legal experts from across the political spectrum. Featuring a unique group of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Atheists, the participants came from America, Argentina, Ecuador, Poland, Switzerland, Germany, China, Australia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda.

The reason for my own interest was obvious. As a Birthright madrich used to showing fellow Jews our homeland, I wanted to see Israel through the eyes of an immensely diverse group. I was eager to learn more about the participants and to witness the first impressions of non-Jews who had not grown up saying “next year in Jerusalem” and had only second hand knowledge of life in Israel.

Many of my friends and family have asked me why these individuals decided to apply for the OSS tour. What was their motivation for wanting to see the Jewish State? The simple answer is that as students with an interest in foreign policy, they looked to better understand the unique complexities facing Israel. The more complicated answer is that only by engaging with individuals can you truly understand their motivations.

As a community, we’re used to events about Israel that can often turn into bashing sessions. So during the question and answer sessions that followed lectures, I was expecting eyebrows to be raised. We often become pessimistic in questioning others, victims of “battered victim syndrome” in which we assume malicious intent. Having had the opportunity to learn about these students and their interests, I had already understood that this was not the case. It was important not to judge their curiosity through a pessimistic lens.

As experts in their respective fields, our speakers answered all questions and were held to a standard rarely seen in open forums. They were encouraged to be open and honest with their opinions, ensuring that different perspectives would be heard. This enabled participants to get thorough responses, giving them much to think and converse about.

Our Soldiers Speak Law and Policy Tour participants at a border briefing in Sderot  (Courtesy of Photoagency)

The openness with which the tour was conducted led to many conversations among the participants. Combining international perspectives and experiences allowed them to talk through new ideas that had been presented to them with added dimensions. Listening to individuals talk through the layers of complexity found in Israeli society helped me to see things from trough a different prism. Our community wants outsiders to better understand Israel’s actions. To do this, we need to understand that even when an outsider is hesitant to believe the propaganda put forth in the media, we can’t expect them to view Israel from any prism other than their own.

After seeing Israel’s situation on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, after visiting Palestinian workers in Jewish owned factories in Samaria, and after seeing a little publicized project between Israel and Jordan on the Jordan River known as the Jordan River Gateway, several participants wanted to know why Israel was not doing more to combat negative coverage in the media. Why has Israel not been doing more to promote their regional cooperation through the media? Many in our community have simply given up trying to explain Israel’s reality to the world. Israel can’t make the world see the good, but that doesn’t stop her from doing the right thing even when it’s not reported to the masses. For the participants though, seeing the dichotomy between reality and what they had been told was hard to grasp. They were frustrated by the realization that they had believed a narrative that was shockingly untrue.

For our participant from Nigeria, a citizen of a struggling nation, Israel is harder to relate to now that she has moved from a struggling nation to a success story. Lost in our collective memory is Israel’s decades long uphill battle for survival, prosperity, and international relevance. Israel’s current label as a success story – an economic and military powerhouse – is what sticks. The Palestinian cause presents itself as downtrodden and victimized. For people who find themselves unable to change their own political and social landscape, it may be easier to connect with this narrative. It is therefore important for us to recognize that not all criticism comes from a place of hate. Sometimes curiosity is just curiosity and is not malicious. We need to avoid the instinct to bark back and try harder to explain our position as a nation by understanding where others are coming from. Through these engagements and with constructive language, we can more effectively transmit out own story. We need to tell our narrative through feelings and emotions as well as through facts and history.

After the tour concluded, the participant from Switzerland stated that although he had already known that the anti-Israel narrative was based in propaganda, there is no substitute for seeing the country firsthand and witnessing the Jewish people’s connection to the land. By being a part of the tour, he was starting to understand the “feeling” that so many Jews speak about. The students experienced this by interacting with Israelis on their own terms, something that a textbook, articles, or op-eds could never give them.

The participants were able to see this connection when they chose to visit the Kotel on Shabbat during their free time. They sat with me only feet away from the Western Wall while they were surrounded by Jews of different backgrounds, singing identical prayers but with various tunes.

They experienced Jerusalem in her true beauty when our participant from Kenya approached the Kotel in her hijab and to her surprise met no protest – only religious Jews who were more than happy to to answer her questions.

They had the opportunity to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and they were able to compare it to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The students saw for themselves that Israel feels that it has nothing to hide, and a comprehensive tour is the only way an individual can begin to understand that.

Our Soldiers Speak participants visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Israel is a country that must balance its desire for acceptance with a need for survival. The reality of 3,000 years of Jewish existence has made us skeptical, but our ability to dream of possibilities has kept us innovative. We should apply that spirit to our approach in showing the world exactly what the land of Israel means to the Jewish people and bring more of tomorrow’s international leaders to experience our homeland. Even if we don’t always agree; even if our paths sometimes diverge due to personal circumstances, we must still try to understand differing viewpoints. By truly understanding others we can become better at explaining ourselves and combating the voices that seek to dishonestly shift public perception against us.

About the Author
Jared is the International Coordinator at Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org). He regularly facilitates campus, congressional, and policy briefings by select Israel policy experts. As a Jewish New Yorker trying to do his part to support Israel from the Diaspora, he is an advisor/ member for the B'nai Brith Youth Organization, Legion Self-Defense Program, and Fuel For Truth Advocacy Boot Camp, as well as a Birthright Madrich.
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