When two IDF officers, one from the highly decorated Golani Brigade infantry unit, spoke recently at the University of California at Irvine, they got a lesson in a different kind of combat: trying to make Israel’s case in hostile territory.
On campuses like Cal-Irvine, said paratrooper Lior Prosor, 26, “extremists” dominate — the central narrative being that Israel is the occupier and the Palestinians are suffering.
Prosor added that college students hear one powerfully packaged message: there are people who are suffering and need their help. And it is packaged “in such a way that it is inherent in the American values of freedom and independence,” he said.
The mission of Prosor and Golani member Inon Tagner, 27, was to try to put things in balance as part of a U.S. tour arranged by StandWithUs, an Israeli organization that strives to tell Israel’s side of the story on college campuses, schools, communities and the media. They visited the West Coast a few months ago and the East Coast earlier this month.
“We tried to make them understand that the situation is complicated — not black and white,” Tagner said. “Headlines are not the reality.”
It was a tough sell.
Tagner pointed out that on college campuses “if you are pro-human rights and pro-environment, you have to be pro-Palestinian as well. That is the only option. You can’t be pro-Israel and pro-environment — that’s the message they hear on campus.”
Prosor said they found that often Jewish students often saw things the way other students did.
“The Jewish crowd sees the same headlines and TV shows,” he explained. “Israel gets a negative presentation, and it seeps into the Jewish community. So it’s very important for them to hear from people in the field who can tell them what’s real, what goes on in combat and the dilemma that occurs when fighting a war in a civilian combat zone.”
The soldiers stressed that, on the front lines, Israeli soldiers are actually scrupulous when it comes to protecting civilians.
“You have to differentiate between the enemy who are hiding inside civilian zones and using civilians [for cover],” Prosor said. “A civilian who gets killed is good for Hamas and Hezbollah, because Israel always comes out worse in that situation.”
In the battle for hearts and minds, Prosor and Tagner had some success with an Egyptian student at Irvine, who said he had been raised to believe Israelis were the “devil.”
“But I see you are thinking people and have values,” he said the Egyptian told him. “Maybe we have different opinions, but we can get along.”
Prosor said the Egyptian revealed that this was the first time he had met two Israeli soldiers and that they “didn’t fit the image [he was brought up with].”
“It is changing my opinion,” the Egyptian said.
Meanwhile, in the ongoing campus hasbara battle, Israel’s new consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, told The Jewish Week that part of his new strategy is to talk directly to faculty members — but not in political science or Mideast studies departments. He’s been telling Israel’s story of late to faculty in business and film, for instance. There, he said, “the Israel narrative is changing” because of the country’s “innovation and creativity” in those fields.