Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city was the first stop Mark and I made on our tour. For two weeks, we traveled throughout the Southeastern United States in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, sharing our story as Israelis, immigrants and former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.
In its ninth tour, “Between the Lines: Voice of Israel - Stories Untold” features two reserve duty Israeli soldiers who recount their personal experiences in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) upholding its strict moral code, often in the face of an enemy that hides behind its civilians. The tour is sponsored by StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization with chapters throughout the US, in Israel, Canada and the UK. “Between The Lines” builds bridges between American and Israeli society, and reinforces the organization’s mission that “Education is the path to peace.”
Our first event in Jacksonville was with young Jews who wanted to deepen their relationship with Israel. The next day, we anticipated facing a completely different challenge. A public school in a popular area of Jacksonville opened its doors for us to share our stories with JROTC students, a leadership course.
We asked the first question: “when I say the word Israel, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?” A few hands rose, and some relayed the horrible things about Israel they heard in the news. Most of the students did not know what I’m talking about. Then we created the first bridge by asking, “have you heard of the Holy Land?” Many more hands went up; several raised the small copies of the Bible they have as key rings. Our educational work had started successfully.
Through comparisons and analogies we began to bring this distant subject, Israel, to the small school in Jacksonville. The next bridge we created paralyzed us all, and gave us goosebumps. Mark shared how the second Intifada negatively affected his childhood in Israel. Then, “have any of you experienced or know someone who has been a victim of violence?” Sadly, more than half the room raised their hands. In the largest city in Florida, these teens are dealing with a situation that Israel has faced since before its creation: violence. The teens now understand the challenge of living in Israel. The various ways in which we endured violence for several years in Israel now inspire these young people in Jacksonville and we connect regarding stories of survival.
After we present at universities, high schools and community organizations, its time to travel to Atlanta, Georgia. In this city, we would face the representation of hatred and intolerance.
We arrived at the University of Georgia. An article in the school newspaper “Zionists supports Apartheid” is our welcome message. Our hosts’ warnings become frequent: anti-Israeli groups will try to sabotage our talk and usually at the beginning. We had extra security.
Approximately 90 people were present. In the last row, a group of 15 students wearing shirts with anti-Israel messages were staring at us. Strategically, we decide, that I, a representative of the Hispanic minority, a member of the IDF humanitarian unit COGAT, who experienced many cases of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, should begin first.
“My name is Ilan, I am Venezuelan, my father is a Christian and this is the story of how Israel saved the life of a 4-year-old Palestinian child.” As I speak, I cannot avoid being afraid. I wait for the shouting and sabotage. Without realizing it, I finish. The room is silent. The 15 protesters remain in their seats. Maybe we will have the opportunity to have a productive debate, listen to different positions and try to get to a neutral space in which we can understand each other? After all, that’s the only way we’ll ever have peace.
Mark commences. Two minutes pass and the first person stands. The protest begins. “If you leave now, you will have made a statement, but if you stay, you can make a difference,” Mark tells them. Demonstrators have printed photos of children killed in the 2014 military operation in Gaza. They throw them on the floor at our feet. Mark and I pick them up. “Respect the victims! If you really respect human life, you will never soil the image of the victims,” I tell them. The room is silent for a few seconds. The demonstrators no longer throw the photos on the floor, they now place them on the tables. We invite them to stay and participate but unfortunately, they leave. A reporter from the Atlanta Jewish Times captured it all.
Sadly, we were not able to hear the views of the anti-Israeli protesters, nor did they articulate a proposal for a resolution to the conflict. Closing the doors to dialogue only demonstrates that a possible agreement is not part of these groups’ agenda.
Days before, we conversed with a young man of Jordanian descent who decided to open his mind and listen to other versions of the narrative. He was filled with surprise when we explained the origin of the name Palestine and the 3,000-year Jewish presence in the land of Israel and when we told him about Israeli Arabs or how there is daily cooperation with Palestinian civil society.
These two weeks were filled with experiences and challenges. They allowed us to understand a little better relations between Israel and American society. It shows us clearly that there is still much to do. As Israelis, experiences such as these allow us to share with the world our great passion, Israel, and it gives us an opportunity to fight the lies that are perpetuated against it.
I will continue to share my story, creating more and more bridges between Israel and the world and believing, like StandWithUs’ mission, that education is the only path to peace.
This story "Ties Of Violence: What It’s Like To Talk Israel In The Deep South" was written by Ilan Lopez.