Dozens of young Israelis have traveled to three continents on a privately sponsored public relations campaign for the Jewish state because Joey Low asked himself a question two years ago.
Low, a national Hillel board member who lives in Purchase, found that “college kids knew nothing about Israel” and he wondered, “What can we do to change that?”
His answer was Israel at Heart, an organization he established to bring a cross-section of college-aged Israeli men and women to North America, South America and Europe for meetings with high school and college students. The group was affiliated briefly with Israel’s Foreign Ministry but is now independent.
In encounters on U.S. campuses with Jews, Christians and sometimes Palestinians, the Israelis openly discussed their culture and day-to-day life, staying away from politics. They offered a side of their country rarely shown by the media.
But Low, a Manhattan diamond broker turned stock trader, thought the Israelis weren’t reaching enough young people in this country. So he asked himself another question: “Why not basketball?”
The answer this time was a three-week Israel at Heart tour in November featuring 13 Israeli men not just talking to American students, but also playing several exhibition basketball games against NCAA Division III teams and a few high school teams. All the players have experience on their Israeli high school and college teams.
“You want to reach the audience not in traditional ways,” said Low, 53, a one-time basketball captain at Ramaz. His audience: apolitical young Americans whose opinions are still forming.
“We want to reach people we” — other pro-Israel hasbara efforts as well as the earlier Israel at Heart visitors — “ordinarily don’t get to see,” he added.
Low, who calls himself “a rebel … a little anti-establishment,” will drive to Boston and around the New York area to watch from the sidelines as the Israelis take on such college squads as Brandeis, Clark and Yeshiva, as well as his alma mater of Ramaz.
Next week’s schedule includes three local games: at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, against Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J.; at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15, against Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn; and at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16, against John Jay College in Manhattan. (For information, visit www.israelatheart.org.)
The games mark the first-such basketball competition played here with touring Israelis strictly for the sake of Israel’s image, Low said.
Low, who still plays basketball twice a week, doesn’t care who wins the games. As long as they are played, as long as the players present themselves well, as long as the fans see Israelis doing something “normal,” then Israel wins, he said.
“You destroy stereotypes and myths,” Low said. “The best ambassadors are the young people.”
Low spent a year at Hebrew University during college and “fell in love with Israel.”
Sitting in his Midtown office, he pulls out photo albums of the Israeli students’ collegiate visits, clips of newspaper coverage of the campus meetings and a stack of e-mail messages. The Israelis write daily to say thanks, the Americans write to say how much they learned.
“For the first time we’re seeing a different side of Israeli life,” one American wrote. “We didn’t know Israelis are just like us.”
“We’re trying to show that Israelis are regular people,” said Low. The cost to show that has been “more than a million dollars.”
When Low brought the first group of students here two years ago, during the Intifada II uprising that cast Israel’s image as a brutal military power, he worked with Israeli diplomats in the U.S. who had sponsored similar visits of Israeli high-schoolers for decades. Then he took Israel at Heart independent. Too much red tape, Low said.
“I decided I could do better by myself. I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy,” he said.
“The system eats you up,” Low said, referring to the PR campaigns mounted by Israeli and Zionist organizations in the U.S. “They’re all doing the same things.”
Now, Israel at Heart has “no connection to any group.” But, Low said, “Now I have good relations with the Foreign Ministry.”
The players’ itinerary here includes an invitation by the Israel Consulate General.
Low already is at work on the next Israel at Heart visits in America, bringing some Ethiopian law students in March and more college students in April. Another visit is being planned for Europe.
“We’re sticking with it,” Low said.
No question about that.