One of the goals of The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program for high school juniors and seniors is to break some of the stereotypes they’ve heard or read about regarding Israel and the Mideast conflict. It’s important for students to have an accurate picture of Israel before they head off to college, where they are likely to be challenged about Israel and its policies.

The highlight of the two-year program for the students, and for me as its core educator, was our trip to Israel in February. We met a wide range of leaders as well as Israeli peers, journalists and Israel Defense Forces soldiers, often maligned in the media.

Our weeklong visit started in the Golan where we were privileged to meet with soldiers from an elite infantry brigade. Our group heard from Sgt. J, a Chayal Boded (lone soldier) and one of his officers, Lt. S, a decorated hero. They spoke about “Operation Protective Edge,” fought in Gaza last summer, and how much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and the high moral standards of the IDF. A similar theme was discussed the next day during a visit to an Air Force base during a briefing by the pilots and by a further informal meeting a few days later with lone soldiers at the “Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin” in Jerusalem. The soldiers 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 humanize these young defenders of our land, it broke stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Israeli soldier propagated on North American college campuses and throughout Europe.

Another stereotype was shattered during our visit to "Save a Child's Heart" (SACH) at the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon.  The Save a Child’s Heart organization provides life-saving cardiac surgery and other life saving procedures for children from developing countries free of charge.

During our visit to the Wolfson Medical Centre the Canadian-Israeli director of youth leadership, an Israeli-Arab social worker, a Jewish-Israeli doctor born in Iraq and a Muslim-Palestinian doctor from the territories who is interning at SACH, addressed us.  (So much for "Apartheid Israel.") The Write On group then went to volunteer at the recuperation center where the children and their parents or caregivers are either preparing or recuperating from the surgery that will allow them to life normal lives. Many in our 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.  Writer and educator 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 looking out for other people.”

Frequently, the unplanned moments during an Israel tour become major “learning opportunities.” I was chatting with our bus driver. He told me he was as Christian Arab from Nazareth. I asked the participants, who are all budding journalists, if they would like to interview him. It turns out that he served in the IDF in a combat unit, his sons serve in the IDF. He encourages other Christian Arabs to serve our country; he votes for Likud and is Facebook friends with Bibi. So much for stereotypes.

Applications are now being accepted for the next Write On cohort for students who will be going into junior year of high school in the fall. The applicants are carefully selected after an 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 program’s goal is to give them the knowledge and moral confidence to make Israel’s case on campus, understanding the complexities of the Mideast today.

The training and instruction on the history of Zionism includes a wide range of presenters ranging from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists to college campus activists.  The culmination of the program is the weeklong mission to Israel for the seniors. The 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.  

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 learned 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, combined with an understanding and appreciation of the Mideast, which should stand them in good stead during their university years and beyond.

Tuvia Book is core educator of Write On For Israel.