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Showcasing Israel’s Diversity

Showcasing Israel’s Diversity

One of the favorite mementoes that Hadas Yossef, an Israeli who spent a recent week on a pro-Israel speaking tour in the New York area, took back home, was a photograph of her and other delegation members with a New York cab driver.

The cabbie, a Muslim, is black.

Yossef, 30, a native of Ethiopia, is also black.

“Are you Israeli? There are black Jews in Israel?” the cab driver asked his passengers, who were wearing “Face of Israel” hooded sweatshirts.

The Israelis, members of various minority groups — a black, an Arab, a lesbian and a gay man — talked about Israel’s multiracial, multicultural society during the short ride through Manhattan. At the end, the cabbie asked to pose with the visitors. “He wanted to come to Israel,” Yossef says.

The reaction of the taxi driver typified the experiences of the Israelis, whose visit to college campuses here was sponsored by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, and of a concurrent group under the aegis of the independent Israel at Heart organization, which spent time at universities, high schools and religious institutions, members of the delegations say.

Their visits coincided with the seventh annual Israel Apartheid Week, which, as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, has spread since its founding in Toronto in 2005 to some 55 cities around the world and a dozen American campuses.

The Israelis — the 16 brought here by Israel at Heart included 15 natives of Ethiopia and a Muslim-born native of Darfur — all volunteered to come the to the U.S. to tell their lives’ stories, which they see as a refutation to the claim that Israel is a racist, apartheid state.

Appearing on campuses before friendly, pro-Israel audiences as well as hostile, anti-Israel audiences, including at Columbia University and Baruch College here, members of the delegations said they encountered less animosity than they had expected, and were not physically attacked.

“I thought [the atmosphere] would be more hostile,” says Irit Magal, a lesbian who joined the Israeli Ministry’s group. She told gay organizations here about the equal rights that Israeli gays enjoy in such areas as employment and army service. Many gays in this country, usually liberal, are suspicious of Israel. “You can be liberal and be pro-Israel,” she told them.

“I think there is more openness” toward Israel at American universities and other traditionally liberal settings “than we are led to believe,” says Joey Low, founder of Israel at Heart.

“They are willing to listen,” says Adam Bashar, the Darfur-born member of the Israel at Heart delegation. He met a Muslim student from an Egyptian family at a Brooklyn high school last week. She asked about Muslims’ rights in Israel, but listened respectfully, Bashar says. “Not all Muslims are anti-Israel. Not all Arabs are anti-Israel.”

Before the delegation left the high school, Bashar says, the Muslim student asked to be photographed with the Israelis.

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