When I first heard about the “Call a Swede” program, I was flabbergasted. The Swedish Tourist Association has set up a phone number that people from all over the world can call, and reach a random Swedish person. To me, it just seemed bizarre. Why would the Swedish Tourist Association – one of the largest volunteer organizations in Sweden – want to connect its citizens with random foreigners? And why would Swedes want to participate in such a gimmick, receiving phone calls from people they don't know, who’d likely just have ridiculous, stereotypical questions about things like Ikea?
But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Simply by speaking to a random Swede, foreigners would begin to break down whatever stereotypes they might have had. Not all Swedish people like meatballs? They’re not all blonde? When met with real-life examples that debunk the stereotypes, the stereotypes themselves would begin to fade away.
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I’ve experienced this first hand – studying in Amman, Jordan, where I had actual, normal conversations with Palestinians rather than exchanging heated epithets during debates at University in the U.S.; when I went to New Delhi and stayed with my Indian friend who illuminated just how different the regions of India were; and when the rural Georgian who I met at a summer camp in Valdosta, GA, confessed to me that he had previously held some pretty anti-Semitic beliefs, like Jewish people being a different race than white people, before he met me.
So I've started thinking: Why don’t we have a “Call an Israeli” program?
If there’s a country that suffers from stereotypes, it’s Israel. From those who believe Israel is a barren, desert land where people ride camels to work, to those who believe it’s a country of racist, religious fanatics, I’ve met so many people who didn’t understand the diversity of the people living in the country. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for someone with outdated stereotypes to chat with the Tel Aviv city slicker, living in a high-rise apartment and working at a startup tech firm? Or to chat with a Christian Israeli Arab political activist, fighting for Arab women’s rights? Or the religious American oleh living in the settlements who believes in coexistence? For Israelis, these characters make up their everyday lives. But what the world sees aren’t the everyday individuals, but the exceptions – the racists, the extremists and the violent.
Israelis are constantly fighting the battle for hasbara, posting on Facebook about Israel’s morality or its victimization in the world’s eyes. But perhaps we all need to recognize that it’s not the country that needs a PR campaign; it’s the people. And the perception of who Israelis are needs to reflect the same complexity of their everyday lives.
I know what you’re thinking. “But we’ll get weirdos!” True. There will be some bizarre people on the other end of the line – but you can always hang up. And it’s that non-weirdo, that person who believes that all Israelis dress like shepherds and ride camels to work, that might dial in and speak to someone who will change his or her worldview. Or, it could be a Palestinian who dials an Israeli and gets to shatter some of his or her own stereotypes, and vice versa. I’ll bet that more often than not, it’ll create dialogue where there never has been dialogue before.
Yael Miller lives in Washington, DC with her husband and son. You can follow her on Twitter: @yaelinthecity.