Fifty Jewish Agency representatives destined to be sent soon to North America participated in an advocacy training session yesterday with the goal of preparing themselves to work with Jewish student and community leaders to explain Israel's actions in the current war against Hizbullah.
The shlihim analyzed how North Americans often understand the information presented to them about Israel by the media, and they learned how to place images and facts into a context that helps them understand how Israel justifies the actions it takes to defend itself.
This session was part of an intensive three-week training course to prepare them for their one-year service abroad. The shlihim, mostly in their mid- to late-20s, are required to undergo interviews, testing and a series of lectures and workshops before they are sent abroad. As part of this process, they are forced to question and explain their own beliefs about Israel's actions.
In many places, such as university campuses where support for anti-war movements is widespread, the shlihim will be greeted by a very harsh political climate in which they will face challenging questions about Israel's actions over the last two months.
Ilan Wagner, director of the Jewish Agency's shlihim to Hillels in North America, who led the session, said the goal was not simply to send Israelis to defend Israel's actions but to work with the Jewish student and community leadership to help them understand the intricacies of Israeli political discourse.
He explained that the approach now being taken toward Israel advocacy on university campuses abroad is different that at the beginning of the second intifada when the idea was to arm Jewish activists with facts about Israel and the situation and have them explain them to their non-Jewish peers.
Now, he said, they're trying to help the student leaders understand complex issues involved in Israel's defense and provide them with a deeper understanding of the country's society and politics. This is representative of a shift away from debating the merits of conflict and toward showing people a side of Israel that isn't often revealed - the culture, the music, the diversity.
Melissa Lantsman, president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students, is anxiously awaiting the arrival of five new shlihim to Canada in September: "The shlihim sent to Canada in the past have been a great help in combating anti-Israel sentiment on Canadian university campuses, while helping to create much-needed personal relationships between Jewish students and Israelis," she said.