NEW YORK – Jonathan Elkhoury, an Israeli-Christian resident of Haifa, took part last May in a turbulent event about Israel held at the University of California, Irvine. It was “Israel Apartheid Week” on campus and Elkhoury was part of a delegation of the Reservists on Duty organization, defending Israel’s reputation.
At one point, when the dispute shifted from English to Arabic, a student of Palestinian origin burst out and said: “You are stealing my language,” Elkhoury recalled.
“I’ve been before on several campuses, but at Irvine it was the peak, in personal attacks against me and also in attacks against Israel,” he said.
“It was the essence of the anti-Israel activity on the campuses that categorized me as a Jew. I was accused by a girl who was born in the United States and barely speaks Arabic, ‘You steal my language.’ I told her, ‘How do I, as a Christian Arab, who grew up in Lebanon and lives in Israel, steal something from you?’ She had never been to Israel, and her Arabic was less than basic. She tells me that I am a liar and in the same breath tells stories that in Haifa, my city, there is an apartheid regime with separate buses for Arabs and separate schools.”
The incident, it turns out, did not deter Elkhoury, who serves as a minorities coordinator in Reservists on Duty . Next week he will again cross the Atlantic, this time heading a small delegation of citizens who wish to become the next thing in Israeli hasbara” (public diplomacy): They are Arabs, their mother tongue is Arabic and they will try to defend, in English, the reputation of Israel.
With Muslims, a Christian and a Druse on board, no one would be surprised if the delegation also draws fire during its two-week visit to campuses across the US, from San Jose to Minnesota.
Amit Dari, who heads Reservists on Duty, said the delegation’s schedule was completely filled.
The organization was established in 2015 by reservists who, as the group’s website says, “felt it was their duty to expose and counter the new antisemitism erupting on college campuses across America.” They wish to “counter the Israeli nonprofit organizations that assist BDS,” mainly Breaking the Silence.
During its tour of the United States, the new public relations group will be called “Arabs Breaking the Silence.” According to the organization’s brochure, the delegation will include: Muhammad Kabiya, an Israeli Beduin, and Ram Asad, a Druse, both of whom are former IDF soldiers; Dema Taya, a Muslim young woman from Kalansuwa in central Israel; and Bassem Eid, a human rights activist who is a Palestinian living in east Jerusalem.
According to Dari, the delegation was supposed to be joined by another Palestinian, but he did not receive a visa from the US Consulate.
“This is a group of minorities from Israel, from the entire religious spectrum, who want to talk about their personal experience in Israel. We want to refute the claims that BDS organizations are spreading against us. They use us, Israel’s minorities, to slander Israel and say that it is racist and discriminates against its minorities, and we will say otherwise,” Elkhoury said.
The son of a onetime South Lebanese Army officer, Elkhoury came to Israel from Lebanon at the age of nine and lived on the margins of the Arab community, which did not accept his family, or other South Lebanon Army families.
“From an early age, I saw the disinformation about Israel in the media, especially regarding Israel’s treatment of its Arab residents,” he said. “It bothered me, as a person who grew up in a country that did not protect him and did not allow freedom to live life as he chooses. I am also active in encouraging and integrating young people from the Christian community to enlist in the army and national service, and also to encourage people not to be afraid to reflect who are they and their feelings.”
But what do the Arab delegation members represent, if about half of them served in the army or in national service and some, like Elkhoury, do not live in their communities? “We do not represent the Arab society,” Elkhoury answered.
“Each one represents only himself and not his community. Each one of us is an individual and the common denominator is the desire to present a different point of view.
“It’s true that I define myself first of all as a Christian Lebanese and not an Arab. But some of the members of the delegation live in Arab villages in Israel and are not afraid to express a position that is different from that of the more vocal minority. Most of them want to share and have a good and full life. And there are LGBT members who have something to say about the limited possibilities they had in their community.”
According to Dari, the delegation will sound “silenced voices” within Arab society. “It’s a mosaic of all the Arab minorities who live in Israel. And they say that the same people who BDS activists are using us to attack Israel do not say it’s true. Let’s tell you our personal stories. We do not want to convince the Jews and we do not want to convince the bad guys. We want to appeal to the average American audience and tell them you are been lied to and be aware of what is really happening.”