Benjamin Netanyahu - Mark Israel - 4.1.2011
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a Birthright event in Jerusalem, January 4, 2012. Photo by Mark Israel
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Speaking to a crowd of 3,000 Taglit-Birthright Israel participants from more than 15 countries in Jerusalem Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited young Diaspora Jews to go back to their countries and tell the truth about Israel.

“Tell them about a country where people are free. Free to initiate, free to work, free to speak. A country where you can criticize the prime minister” he said at the Jerusalem mass event, adding, playfully: “Although he never makes mistakes.”

“This is a country in which Arabs have full rights – something which is denied in the vast lands around us. This is a country where a woman is president of the Supreme Court, where a woman is a general in the military,” Netanyahu said, saying: “A woman in this country can sit anywhere she wants. That’s our position. This is a free country.”

Netanyahu spoke hours after a Knesset discussion at which Tanya Rosenblit, dubbed the “Israeli Rosa Parks” for having refused to move to the back of the bus when told to do so by an ultra-Orthodox male passenger last month, said she had received several death threats.

The prime minister’s speech was met with a standing ovation, with audience members energetically waving their Israeli flags.

In discussions with participants, Haaretz learned that many of the young people had no idea of what Netanyahu’s comments regarding women referred to. Some said they did not follow Israel’s domestic news, although they had been exposed to the foreign media’s portrayal of Israel in times of conflict.

“It’s only when you come here that you realize that Israel is not what the media portrays it as,” said Sharon, 24, from Australia. “Everyone who has an opinion on Israel should come here to see for themselves before they present their opinion in public.”

During his speech on Wednesday at Birthright’s so-called Mega Event, Netanyahu invited the participants to become ambassadors for Israel. “There’s so much slander about Israel. And the only way to fight a lie is to tell the truth,” he said.

The premier encouraged participants to embrace their connection with Israel, and made an outright request: “I want you to come back here and make aliyah to Israel and be part of our country, here.”

Florencia, 21, an Argentinean participant, told Haaretz she was bothered by that comment. “That’s one of my prejudices about Birthright,” she said, explaining that she was concerned the trip would center on a drive to encourage aliyah. She noted that the trip had not done that so far, and that she instead enjoyed experiencing Birthright as a means for discovering herself in the context of Israel as “my country.”

Netanyahu told participants, “This is your homeland. This is where the Jewish People forged their identity until we were kicked out and then we did something no people have done in history, we refused to disappear.”