One of Israel's most serious image problems is how it is perceived on campuses around the world. Now, a group of 27 Israeli students are planning to tackle the issue head-on, funding their own trips to South African universities.
As part of the project, 150 students will be sent abroad in five delegations over the next six months.
The students receive no governmental aid, and are paying for the trip on their own and through contributions. As part of their fund-raising efforts, they will be holding a party in Tel Aviv next week.
On the first trip, scheduled to depart August 11, the participants will spend 10 days visiting universities in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town and try to convince students there that Israel is not an apartheid state.
Pro-Palestinian activities are held almost daily on these campuses. The University of Johannesburg, a major focus of the trip, launched an academic boycott of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev a few months ago.
The trips are a private initiative by the students, said Roy Wolff, one of the organizers of the group, called What Is REAL. "We all agreed that we were willing to spend $1,000 each, the cost of travel, and hoped we could raise money to cover expenses."
Why take part in such a delegation?
"I can stay home and cry about Israel's lack of [positive] publicity, or I can get out of my chair, take my money and do something. If within six months we manage to send 150 people on five delegations, we can influence 5,000 students. In two months we have trained 27 students for the educational missions. There is no doubt that this is just a drop in the ocean. However, we could manage to influence a student who goes on to become Britain's prime minister."
The participants do not share an ideology. Its members include Wolff, a parliamentary aide to MK Arieh Eldad (National Union ); and Lior Finkel, aide to MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz ).
"We all agree that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, and we all agree that Israel is not an apartheid state. This is what we want to show the students on campus," Wolff said.
Finkel said, "To me, [the trip] will be a success if I can sit with people and explain Israel's side, and if they are willing to listen to me. The delegation will create the most basic kind of human interaction: I meet people my age, who are exactly like me, and who don't always feel like hearing about Israel."
How important are the group's activities?
"Most people on campus don't really care," Wolff says. "But the fact that they hear slogans about Israel being an apartheid state every day means that this is the only thing they know about Israel. We have to create some doubt in their minds."
Talia Dekel, another group member, explains that the organizers prefer not to take government money so that they cannot be cast as official representatives.
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