Look at us, listen to us, and then judge us by who we are.Last Week, Israel at Heart – a NYC-based pro-Israel advocacy group, was honored by Russell Simmons’ ‘Foundation of Ethnic Understanding’ for its work bridging the Israeli and African-American communities. Joey Low, the founder of Israel at Heart, tells the story of his unique organization
I started Israel at Heart four years ago because I felt Israel was being portrayed very poorly by the media. The images of Israel in the press were always of terrorism, bombings and occupation – and this was not the Israel I knew and loved. I found that American Jewish students on college campuses did not really know how to defend Israel against verbal attacks by left leaning professors, or Muslim students. I also felt our Jewish leadership was not addressing these troubling facts.
In response, I started to bring bright, eloquent, enthusiastic young college students from Israel, who had completed their army service and were fluent in English, to speak in front of college students here in America. I felt that by hearing from real, live, young Israelis about everyday life, Israel would be seen in a different light. I also wanted American Jewish college students to feel pride in their Jewishness, something I was not sure many of them felt.
Our formula was to send teams of three Israelis to different parts of America. Every team included a religious person, a secular one and an Ethiopian, in order to highlight a different aspect of life in Israel. The key was that we were not sending our students to prove anything. We were not trying to say Israel is always right or that Israelis are smarter then anyone else. We were simply saying, look at us, listen to us, and then judge us by who we are and not by what the media says or portrays.
One of the things we realized very early on was that the Ethiopian Israelis had a story to tell that affected audiences here in a very profound way. When they told people that Israel was not the racist state it was portrayed to be, it made much more of an impression then when a white Israeli would say that.
The story of the Ethiopians’ struggle to reach Jerusalem and The Holy Land was so moving that you really had to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. I decided that the Ethiopian issue would be at the top of our agenda.
Growing up in New York I was always curious about our relationship as Jews and white people with the blacks who lived in the very same city just blocks away from my home. I felt a certain kinship and warmth towards our black neighbours and taught in Harlem when I went to college at NYU. Then, as I got to know the Ethiopian community, I saw them as a potential bridge to the African-American community and to Americans in general.
After our first trip to America, I realized that the Ethiopian story captured the imagination of the audiences – whether at churches, high schools, colleges or in the media. I began to make more of an effort to expose those stories to a variety of different audiences, and made a point of including Ethiopian Israelis in all our groups, which at this point included dozens of students a year, travelling across the United States, Canada and Europe.
About a year ago, I brought nine Ethiopian Israeli lawyers and law students to speak at law schools, universities, churches and high schools. They spoke about racism and discrimination in Israel with their African-American counterparts in Atlanta, Washington DC and New York. One of the most moving things was to hear a black law school student at NYU say he wishes he felt about America what the Israeli felt about Israel.
My dream is that Israel’s ambassadors to Africa would be Ethiopian Israelis, as they could relate so much better then a typical white Israeli could to the people there. I even suggested to the Foreign Ministry that we get an Ethiopian Israeli to address the UN on behalf of Israel. How I would love to see the European delegations and Middle Eastern representatives deal with a black Israeli speaking of his pride of being Jewish and black!
Last week, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and his group, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, granted us a special award in appreciation for the work we do trying to bring African-Americans and Israelis closer together.
Now our challenge is that Israelis too should learn more about Ethiopian culture, history and the potential contribution they can make to Israeli society. I am convinced if Ethiopians are given the chance, they can be a big asset to the state of Israel. Unfortunately, most of the stories we read in the papers in Israel only refer to the problems the community faces – alcoholism, prostitution and drugs.
We feel that someone must highlight the accomplishments within the community, and show the young people that are great role models within the community. Jews in Israel and around the world can only benefit from the success of Ethiopian Israelis, and it is in all of our interests to help them integrate into Israeli society while at the same time maintaining their very special cultural character.