Why Do You Defend Israel? 'Because I Care'

An Israeli college student explains why he's fighting BDS; two young Catholics explain how they found themselves volunteer in Israel

From left, Neomi, Uri and Chen Zvi.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Neomi Zvi, 58, from Moshav Givati; Uri Zvi, 31, from Seattle; and Chen Zvi, 25, nomad; Uri is arriving from Toronto

How’s Seattle?

Uri: Cool. The nature is amazing, the people are terrific, everything is good except for the sun, which I miss.

Neomi: We’ll see what you’ll have to say about the sun in another two days.

Uri: I missed it. I haven’t been in Israel for six years.

What did you do during those six years?

Uri: I worked, traveled, and then, three years ago, I decided the time had come for school.

What are you studying?

Uri: Biomedical engineering, at the University of Washington. I’ll be done in another year.

And besides studies?

Uri: I’m active in StandWithUs, an apolitical organization that defends Israel.

How do you defend Israel?

Uri: I feel that the most important thing about the conflict is to learn about it, which is what I’m trying to do. I organize activities, invite speakers. During the last quarter, we organized about 20 different events on campus, some of them in response to BDS events.

What kind of events, for example?

Uri: They held a week devoted to apartheid. They had a huge wall on which they wrote “apartheid” and “genocide” and all the worst words, and there was a picture of the separation barrier in Israel and of the fence on the Mexico border. We explained that it’s not the same as with Mexico, because no Mexican has as yet come to the U.S. to murder Americans. In general, we’re trying to say that it’s a complex situation, not black and white.

Why are you doing it?

Uri: Because I care. If we don’t do something, in another 20 years we’ll be in big trouble.

Neomi, are you proud of the boy?

Uri: I have to say something important about my mother.

Go for it.

Uri: She is an amazing, loving and wise mother.

Neomi: In other words, a “Jewish mother.”

Uri: Sometimes a little clingy, but at least she brought us up to be politically and economically independent.

Neomi: Yes, my children are independent. Each of them went his own way.

Chen, which way did you go?

Chen: I’ve been wandering for the past two-and-a-half years.

Neomi: He’s also vegan.

Chen: For a whole month, I lived without money, and wasn’t allowed to earn money, according to my own rules. I gleaned things from nature, got leftovers and gifts, and also did dumpster diving.

For a month you dove into garbage bins? How did you survive?

Chen: I didn’t just survive, I flourished. And I also wrote a blog.

What did you learn along the way?

Chen: People don’t feel comfortable with weakness and need. The greatest fear in our culture is that we won’t have anything. But I understood that I don’t want to be that person on the street who buys everything he needs with money. During the month when I wandered about I didn’t beg for things, but I did feel a bit like a dog: Whenever I saw people I would say, “Hey, here’s a person, maybe he’ll see me and play with me and love me?” I would see people and “wag my tail,” and things happened. Someone would call out, “Get a pita for him!” Many times needy people are considered to be like leeches, but I think that I contributed more to some of the people I met along the way than they contributed to me. I also think that weakness and need draw people together.

Nice. We’ll conclude with you, Neomi. What do you do other than raising children for the glory of the State of Israel?

Neomi: I’m an intensive-care instructor and a paramedic with Magen David Adom [emergency ambulance service].

Uri: The first woman paramedic in the country. She’ll never tell you, but American Friends of MDA held an event in her honor in Beverly Hills.

Neomi: The event was not in my honor, it was a fundraising event for MDA!

Uri: Where they raised $6 million.

Why were you sent?

Neomi: I work in Ashkelon, and during Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip, 2014], a missile wounded a boy and we set out without getting a call. We never wait, the moment we hear something, we’re out there. We found a 16-year-old lying in a grove. His lung was full of blood, blood pressure 40, another minute and he’d be dead. We performed field surgery on him, a plumbing job, don’t ask. Now he’s about to enter the army. I’m quite friendly with his mother.

Jose Berlánga and Mike Montiel.
Tomer Appelbaum

Jose Berlánga, 31, and Mike Montiel, 20, from Tiberias; Mike is flying to Madrid

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time  in Israel?

Jose: I did sightseeing and volunteer work in India and Ethiopia, and when I got back to Spain I went for a job interview as an architect. The firm asked me if I would be willing to volunteer for a project at Lake Kinneret that combines archaeology and architecture, as preparation for getting the job afterward. That suited me and I volunteered.

Tell me about the project.

Jose: The place is a fusion between a hotel and an archaeological site. It’s located adjacent to Migdal, next to the ruins of an ancient synagogue from the first century C.E. That’s the archaeologists’ part. We, the volunteers and engineers, are building a restaurant and a visitors’ center there.

Mike, are you part of the project, too?

Mike: I’m the cook. I’m crazy.

How many people do you cook for?

Mike: It depends. Sometimes there are 13 and sometimes there are 80. It depends on the season. Now, for example, there are three engineers and three archaeologists. Some of the people stay for a week, some for three months.

How long have you stayed?

Mike: I’ve been here for two years already. I have food and a place to sleep, so I don’t need more – maybe a little help from my parents.

How did you get involved?

Mike: I don’t really know. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and an uncle of mine who was in Israel doing volunteer work with a priest in Jerusalem said, “You’re a good cook, give it a try.” So I went for four months that turned into 10.

Jose: He’s already learned to speak Hebrew. 

How is he as a cook?

Jose: I spoke to my mother and she asked me what Israeli food is like. I told her I don’t really know, but the Mexican food is terrific. We all eat together, the house itself is pleasant, and we drink a lot of beer. 

Mike: At the moment I have a hangover. We drank all night and slept for two hours in a car in a Tel Aviv parking lot.

Where are the volunteers from?

Jose: I’ve met people here from all over the world – Latvia, Canada, the United States. I can’t even remember the places.

Mike: Since I’ve been here, I’ve met 472 new people. Yes, I counted. But most of the volunteers are Catholics who want to be close to a holy place, and twice a week there are trips to other holy places.

Are you yourself Catholic?

Mike: Yes.

Jose: I was also born a Catholic. But it doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not. I think this place has charm even if you only get into the factual, historical part of the equation. It’s impressive to visit Jerusalem for the first time, to be aware of the history of the place. So many people died to reach Jerusalem.

You say that as though it’s something good. Mike where are you going?

Mike: To northern Spain to do the Camino de Santiago, which is a well-known trek. I’m going to do 250 kilometers by bicycle in six days with a few friends. They’re already waiting for me there with my girlfriend. It’s very hot there now.

Jose: It’s still a good time, if you’re used to heat. I’ve done the Camino five times already. You can meet tons of people there from all over the world.

Why five times?

Jose: I used to work with children with Down syndrome in Madrid. We took them to Camino for five consecutive summers. Every time we went it was a big thing, 10 days, three instructors and 10 children. At some point even the media followed us, we were on TV. It was fun.

Sounds more complex and challenging than fun.

Jose: We didn’t get paid for the trek, other than food. We volunteered, because for me and the children it was an amazing gift. It was the first time in their lives that they’d gone on a tremendous adventure without parents.

Weren’t you apprehensive?

Jose: No. I knew the children well, I’d worked and volunteered with them for years. Besides, with them we did only the last part, because the children can’t walk more than 10 kilometers in a day. I say children, but they were between 18 and 50 – for legal reasons we couldn’t take anyone below 18. But they still behaved like children.

Until when will you be in Israel?

Mike: I’m planning to be here until November. I have a girlfriend from Mexico whom I met here – she was a volunteer. But she went back to Mexico half a year ago to go to college. So I will also go to study for sure.

What?

Mike: Astronomy.