Non-Jewish Israelis Share Experiences to Advocate for Israel
By Tonyia Cone
Last month, a group of advocates for Israel toured the United States, making several stops in Central Texas. The delegation members, from Reservists on Duty, might have seemed unlikely though, because none are Jewish.
Nonprofit organization RoD was founded in 2015 by Israeli reserve combat soldiers and officers who felt it was their duty to expose and counter the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and anti-Semitism on college campuses across America.
Palestinian-led BDS claims that Israel is occupying and colonizing Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. The movement likens Israel to South African apartheid and calls for governments, corporations and institutions to put pressure on Israel.
RoD’s website states, “Organizations fueling contemporary anti-Semitism do so by spreading distortions of the truth that not only target the legitimacy of the Jewish state but the entire Jewish people…RoD adopts [an] assertive and proactive approach to directly confront BDS and organizations that defame Israel and the IDF.”
The organization brings Israeli reservists to campuses in the United States to assertively challenge BDS and trains Jewish students to advocate for Israel. In February, a diverse group of five RoD delegates visited Boston, Massachusetts; Houston, College Station and Austin, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Chicago, Illinois; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia; and Boca Raton, Florida.
Jonathan Elkhoury, Reservists on Duty minorities coordinator, has worked for the last four years to encourage Christians in Israel to join the Israel Defense Forces or Sherut Leumi (national service) – Arab citizens of Israel, are exempt from compulsory military service but can volunteer to serve – and to integrate the Christian community into Israeli society. He writes and gives talks about Israeli Christians and minorities in Israel.
The son of a former South Lebanon Army officer who was forced to leave Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in May 2000, Elkhoury fled to Israel along with his mother and brother in 2001, when Elkhoury was 9 years old. Because the Arab-speaking schools would not accept him, he attended a Hebrew-speaking school.
On a recent visit to the University of California at Irvine, a woman claimed that Haifa, where Elkhoury lives, is an apartheid city. He explained that this is just one example of incorrect information perpetrated by BDS activists. Not only does the government provide Arab-speaking schools because that community asked for them, Haifa holds its Festival of Festivals every weekend each December in celebration of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“They symbolize the values of coexistence, living together in peace and harmony, and mutual respect of all six religions in the city, joining the residents' lives and fate together,” states the city of Haifa’s website.
Elkhoury said, “We were accepted more than happily by Israeli society,” explaining that he integrated into broader Israeli society because of the way he was welcomed and accepted in the country.
It was also for this reason that Elkhoury volunteered for Sherut Leumi, through which he worked as an administrator at Rambam Hospital. In this role, he explained, he continued to be fully and equally accepted and was one of few recipients of the Health Minister’s Shield award for his service. He became active with Reservists on Duty to share the story of his experience with others.
“Everyone here shares their own beliefs and experiences, their own unique story and how he experienced life in Israel,” Elkhoury said. “It’s important for people in the United States or other people to understand and be exposed to this side of Israel because the media is not showing these stories.”
Reservists on Duty delegate Mohammad Kabiya shared a similar experience. An Israeli-Muslim Beduoin, Kabiya was born and raised in the northern Israeli village – named after his family – Kabiya. The village became a part of Israel in 1948 during Israel's independence, as the community fought side by side with the Jews and embraced their newly founded state, officially becoming proud Israelis.
Kabiya voluntarily joined the IDF when he was 18 years old, serving in the Air Force as a search and rescue soldier. He is now an activist working to build bridges between different minority communities in Israel. He also has become a strategic consultant for the IDF, specializing in Beduoin and foreign affairs and represents Israeli-Bedouins in international politics.
The most equal system, Kabiya explained, is the army, where there are representatives of all Israel’s minorities.
“It is the only place that adopts all cultures and religions, and soldiers call each other ‘my brother,’” he said.
As the only Bedouin on a base of 6,000 soldiers, Kabiya found that if there was any racism, it came from individuals, not IDF policy or leadership.
“In the IDF, anyone can succeed,” he explained.
An Israeli Druze woman, Lorena Khateeb hails from the village of Smea in the Galilee. She is a student in sociology and anthropology at Haifa University and an activist in the Druze community.
Khateeb fulfilled her year of national service in the Druze youth movement.
“The movement was to improve the connection between children and nationality and get attached to land we’re living in,” she explained. “We have to protect our land everywhere we go. Druze are loyal to the land they are living in.”
Khateeb participated in the UNICEF National Project and worked with Open Door, the Israel Family Planning Association, Israel's leading organization advancing the human right to sexual health. She received an award for her activity from the Ministry of Education in 2014.
Her year of national service was empowering and one of the most challenging experiences of her life, Khateeb explained.
“I became more responsible for my decisions for my life, for all of these things. In our society women can’t get the same independence in life,” she said of her experience working as part of broader Israeli society.
When Israeli Arab Muslim Nasrin Khalifa Elhaib finished her studies, she felt the need to contribute to the society she lives in. She volunteered for national service, where she served for a year in the Unit for Directing Discharged Soldiers.
Elhaib explained her decision was influenced by her late father, who was a colonel in the IDF.
"It is very important for all of my family to continue his legacy. I made it my goal in life, to serve and to contribute as much as I can for my country,” she said.
From Nahariya, a Jewish city in northern Israel, Elhaib studied in a public Jewish school while growing up. She had Jewish friends as well as friends from other backgrounds and always felt like she belonged and was respected. She remembers celebrating both Jewish and Muslim holidays and talking with friends about her culture and religion.
“My family always taught me to love where I live. I always felt that I loved Israel,” Elhaib said.
“I think that a lot of people don’t know about when we do national service and military service, we receive more support than the Jews,” she added, noting that minorities who volunteer are eligible for larger scholarships after their service.
Reservists on Duty delegate Nizar Jraisi was born and raised in Maalot-Tarchisha in the northern Galilee. He drafted in March 2014 to a special unit in the IDF and served in the tanks division until his release in 2017. Jraisi received an award of honor and esteem in 2016 from the Minister of Defense for his service.
Jraisi found that he treated better than others while in the IDF because, as a Christian, he had volunteered to be there.
Jraisi is now an activist working to better integrate Christians in Israeli society. He explained that his decision to draft into the IDF and to continue to encourage others to do the same is “the path that will lead us to understanding and cooperation.”
He serves with Reservists on Duty because he likes that the group is “spreading the truth.”
“As people from the battlegrounds of Israel, spreading the truth is an important job for us, even though it’s heavy duty. I’d like to share that you can’t hear one side of a story – you should hear both sides of the story. What happens under the table stays there until people spread the truth,” he said. ■