Eytan Schwartz at a protest. 'We Jews were refugees, too.' (Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees in Israel. 'Our biggest success is that we've made this a Jewish issue, not a political issue.'
For Eytan Schwartz, it was a long road to the locked gate of the Prime Minister's Office, where he was the foreign media's go-to guy at a noisy anti-government protest this month. Some 2-1/2 years ago, after all, he was this country's "ambassador."
"You were great," he tells a Darfur refugee who described to the crowd of demonstrators how he ran from genocide in Sudan to Egypt, then ran from racist brutality in Egypt to Israel. Schwartz embraces the refugee, who tells him, "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have gotten up there and said what I did."
Schwartz, 33, a New York-born Tel Avivian with an extremely telegenic smile, makes his living as a presenter on Channel 2's morning show and as a private consultant for Israel advocacy projects. After work hours, though, he is the volunteer spokesman for the campaign to stop the government from deporting about 1,000 Sudanese refugees back to Egypt, which they and their Israeli defenders say would mean a sentence of death or lifelong persecution.
This latter role is a far cry from what Schwartz was doing between April 2005 and April 2006: talking hasbara, or pro-Israeli spin, at American campuses, synagogues, Jewish community centers and churches. That was his prize for winning Channel 2's Hashagrir - The Ambassador - reality series.
"The day after I won, my picture was on the front page of Yediot Aharonot, Ma'ariv and Haaretz," he recalls after the protest. "The Ambassador was the highest-rated TV show of the year. It had the kind of impact A Star Is Born [the local equivalent of American Idol] has now - people talked about it at work, they formed emotional attachments to the contestants. After the series ended, I did every talk show and was interviewed by every newspaper."
During the rally, a group of Jerusalem "mortgage victims" who joined in to angrily promote their own cause, recognized Schwartz and began haranguing him for not speaking out for them, too.
"You're just using those Africans to build your political career!" one mortgage victim shouted in his face. "Why don't you come down to the people's level, come to the poor neighborhoods?" demanded another.
Schwartz smiled and talked his way through it all, trying to reason with the perpetually furious housing protesters, never losing his media cool, and finally they went away.
ON The Ambassador, the panel nicknamed him "the professional," he says, because of his media experience and worldliness. A child actor in Israel, Schwartz did his army duty with IDF Radio, then went to Paris to act and study French and got a bachelor's degree at New York's Columbia University before returning here, where he worked in local children's TV before reporting from Hollywood for Guy Pines's celebrity TV show. He was working on the Pines show in late 2004 when he read about auditions for a new reality series.
Out of the hundreds who auditioned, 14 made it to the program. The winner would have to impress the panel - Channel 2 political reporter Rina Matzliach, hasbara maven Nachman Shai and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ya'acov Peri - that he or she was best suited to represent the country to American audiences. The contestants went to different foreign cities, selling Eilat tour packages to Parisians, debating before a student audience at Cambridge, promoting the American-Israeli alliance to a focus group in New York. During the three months of the series, 11 of the original 14 hopefuls were gradually eliminated. On February 28, 2005, in the three-hour prime-time finale, Schwartz matched his skills and presence against those of Meheretta, a young actress from Ethiopia, and Zvicka Deutsch, an Anglo-Israeli student, and the panel chose him.
With his future wife Re'ut, Schwartz moved to an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment for the next year. Employed by the private Israel at Heart advocacy organization, he spoke to pro-Israel or neutral audiences at major campuses such as Columbia, Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, and was frequently challenged by listeners about the West Bank security barrier and other controversial policies.
THAT WAS THEN. A few days before the protest outside the Prime Minister's Office, Schwartz stood across the street from Jerusalem's Mt. Zion Hotel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was coming to speak to leaders of organized Diaspora Jewry. Schwartz held a sign that read, "We Jews were refugees, too." A dozen or so Sudanese refugees and Israeli activists stood alongside him.
One of the protesters, a very troubled-looking Darfuri who'd been in prison for about a year-and-a-half and who was now under house arrest working on a Netanya-area moshav, went up to Schwartz to inquire about his case - whether he would be deported to Egypt or be allowed to stay here.
Schwartz tried to reassure the man. The clear impression given by government officials is that at least some of the refugees from Darfur, who number about 300, will be allowed to remain in this country. The challenge for the campaign is to convince Olmert that the remaining 1,000 or so Sudanese - who are mainly from southern Sudan - are not "economic immigrants," but rather survivors of Sudanese genocide and Egyptian racist abuse just like the Darfuris, and who are just as much in need of asylum.
Schwartz goes back a couple of years with the Sudanese man who went up to him at the protest; he used to visit the refugee at Ramle's Ma'asiyahu Prison. Schwartz came to get him when he was released from jail to go to work on the moshav. As influential foreign Jews go in and out of the hotel across the street, hardly noticing the protesters who are being kept away by police, he recalls that day. "You can't imagine what it was like to see that guy the first moment he was free, walking the streets, after being in jail for a year-and-a-half, and after everything he'd gone through before," he says before choking up and turning away.
So how did he go from being Israel's ambassador to being the ambassador for these Sudanese refugees, most of whom were imprisoned or dumped on the streets of Beersheba after crossing the border, who are slated to be interned in a Negev prison "campsite" before all but a small minority of them are sent back to Egypt, and who have been a pure hasbara embarrassment for the government?
"I found out that Darfur is the issue among American Jews on college campuses," he explains. "It's as Jewish over there as pastrami on rye. Every Hillel chapter has a 'Save Darfur' banner in its office, every rally for Darfur has a strong Jewish presence. So I would be talking about the security fence and fighting terror, and time and again some student, Jewish or non-Jewish, would ask me how Israel, a country that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, could lock up 300 Sudanese genocide survivors in prison."
Schwartz didn't have a good answer. So he began to ask himself questions.
"You ask yourself what does it mean to be Jewish - does it mean upholding the moral and historical legacy of the Holocaust, or upholding the Jewish state with a Jewish majority? In America you usually hear the first answer, in Israel you usually hear the second. In Israel it's easy to forget Jewish morality and think only about national security, but then you ask yourself: If we forget Jewish morality, what's the purpose of a Jewish state in the first place?"
He's sitting in a midtown Tel Aviv cafe with a Sudanese man he's putting up for a couple of days before the man goes back to house arrest and work at an Eilat hotel.
When Schwartz finished his year in America and returned here, he began making weekly visits to Sudanese refugees who'd been arrested after crossing the border, and who were being held in the Negev's Ketziot and Ramle's Ma'asiyahu prisons. The visits were organized by the two legal organizations helping the refugees - the Hot Line for Migrant Workers and Tel Aviv University's Clinic for Refugee Rights. "It was very easy to get in to talk to the Sudanese, the prison restrictions on them were minimal. They would just be sitting around together waiting for something to happen," he recalls.
Laughing, he adds that every now and then he would be struck by the irony of his situation: "I'd gone from the glamour of The Ambassador to hanging out at Ketziot."
ONE DAY, before a visit to Ma'asiyahu, he was buying slippers for the prisoners at the Ramle shouk, and it occurred to him that he could do a lot more for the cause, that he had valuable abilities to contribute. Organizers for the hot line and the refugee clinic came to the same realization, and together they decided to exploit Schwartz's professional skills and the recognition he'd gained on The Ambassador to win support for the refugees. Since they wanted an organization with the name Darfur in it, they formed the Committee for Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, with Schwartz as spokesman, to handle the political and public campaign, while the hot line and clinic would continue to handle the refugees' legal defense.
"One advantage I have," says Schwartz, "is that people don't think of me as coming from the sector of the population that usually fights for human rights issues - left-wing, urban, self-important, which is a very, very narrow sector. The image I have from The Ambassador is of someone from the mainstream, non-political and pro-Israel."
Given the image he wants people to associate with the refugees' cause, Schwartz has some problems with the rally outside the Prime Minister's Office, which was organized by students from Hebrew and Ben-Gurion universities, and which featured high-profile contingents of Amnesty International and Meretz activists. "I didn't organize this, the students just asked me to handle the media," he says, noting that The Sunday Telegraph, Le Monde, The Scotsman, AP, Reuters and Agence France Presse covered the event.
A few activists talked of tying the refugees' cause to that of the mortgage victims and the Palestinians. This was the exact opposite of the direction Schwartz is taking the campaign. "You don't want to make this a left-wing issue," he maintains. "You know the Left is going to support it, so you want to go after people who aren't on the Left."
The first MK he approached for support was Gilad Erdan of the Likud, after which he organized a visit to the refugees in Ma'asiyahu with Erdan, Avishay Braverman (Labor), Shai Hermesh (Kadima) and Ran Cohen (Meretz). He brought 15 Sudanese refugees to Yad Vashem, arranging it through Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev, who previously had called for Israel to give the Darfur refugees asylum. Schwartz brought former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau to Ma'asiyahu, which led Lau to write Olmert a Passover-eve letter asking that the Sudanese refugees be freed from prison and given asylum. "In this way we will fulfill our duty as a Jewish state," he wrote, though it was to no avail.
There are other well-known, mainstream public figures whom Schwartz and his colleagues have galvanized into behind-the-scenes activity on the refugees' behalf, but he doesn't want their names published. "Our biggest success is that we've made this a Jewish issue, not a political issue," he says. "The public debate is over how Jews should or shouldn't treat these people."
Given all the logistical and legal obstacles, the mass deportations to Egypt, if they are eventually carried out, are likely several weeks or months away. The campaign's next stage, says Schwartz, is to get organized American Jewry to use its considerable influence with the government to change its plans to deport hundreds of Sudanese back to Egypt.
"I know that in the week the Sudanese refugees were camped out at the Wohl Rose Garden [across from the Knesset], it was the most popular site to visit for birthright groups in Israel. They all came by," Schwartz notes.
Grassroots American Jewry isn't the problem, he says, it's the American Jewish establishment that's reluctant to go against the government. "We haven't heard the organized American Jewish establishment make a clear statement on this issue," he points out.
Schwartz says he still feels most comfortable, most natural, being an advocate instead of a protester. But the Sudanese cause casts him in opposition to the powers-that-be. Still, he says, the most common feedback he gets from people, especially after he's been on TV for the refugees, is kol hakavod. He says he understands that some might think he's "switched sides," that there's a contradiction between his advocacy for the Sudanese and his previous, high-profile advocacy for Israel. But Schwartz doesn't see it that way.
"I never thought Israel was perfect, and it was never my hasbara tactic to present Israel as perfect because nobody buys that anyway," he says. "When I was traveling around America, I'd tell people it was okay to criticize Israel, that I had problems with Israel, too, but that didn't mean I didn't love my country, it didn't make me any less of a patriot. I wouldn't be a patriot if I didn't try to change the things here that I thought were wrong."
Furthermore, he believes the Sudanese refugee issue can be changed from a public relations embarrassment into a public relations coup. Pointing out that Menachem Begin's granting of asylum to dozens of Vietnamese boat people has done Israel proud for the last 30 years, Schwartz says that if the country were to grant asylum to several hundred Sudanese genocide survivors, instead of just to a few from Darfur while deporting the rest, it could likewise give a boost to its image.
"This could be a hasbara tool," he says. "Now it's a small, contained problem, but if it were solved in the right way, it could be a great story that shows how Israel helps the world."
He may not be a reality show hero anymore, he may even be picketing the prime minister these days, but Schwartz is still, in his own way, an ambassador.