Student wants to use diplomacy to change Diaspora Jewry's view of Israel - opinion

While Israel has won many military battles, it certainly has lost the battle of the word.

 MAWA EYOV dreams of becoming an ambassador. (photo credit: Courtesy Mawa Eyov)
MAWA EYOV dreams of becoming an ambassador.
(photo credit: Courtesy Mawa Eyov)

“Diplomacy is one of the most important tools in today’s world: These are the words spoken by 25-year-old Mawa Eyov, whose ambition is to join the Foreign Ministry and become an ambassador representing the State of Israel.

Nina Zuck, ESRA’s chair of projects, introduced the Magazine to Eyov, a recent recruit to ESRA’s Students Build a Community (SBC) project, where she mentors four youngsters aged between 11 and 12 – three of Ethiopian origin and one whose family originates from Morocco. SBC operates in areas of severe deprivation where ESRA offers carefully chosen students the opportunity to live rent-free in exchange for mentoring the kids on the block.

Zuck said it was clear from the outset that this new recruit was capable of more than her mentoring hours with the result that – within three months of joining the project – Eyov was appointed the new coordinator for ESRA’s Project of Excellence. This highly successful scheme enables 38 schoolchildren – 8th and 9th graders with leadership potential residing in disadvantaged areas – to participate in a weekly marine biology course at the Ruppin School of Marine Sciences. The opportunity to learn about marine life, meet the turtles requiring rehabilitation, and sail on the sea boosts their self-confidence. 

Who is Mawa Eyov? She is a beautiful young woman who, in 1999 at age three, arrived in Israel from Ethiopia together with her parents, older brother, and younger sister. Today she is one of six siblings with three younger sisters born here. 

Eyov recalls how difficult life was, especially for her parents who came from a totally different environment. In Ethiopia, her great-grandfather was the highly respected head of a large family all from the same village; here Israel’s fast Western lifestyle proved particularly challenging for the senior members of the family.

ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN, whose roots trace back to Judaism, look out of a window at a Beta Israel school while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar in 2007.  (credit: ELIANA APONTE/REUTERS)
ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN, whose roots trace back to Judaism, look out of a window at a Beta Israel school while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar in 2007. (credit: ELIANA APONTE/REUTERS)

Fortunate to be educated at Kfar Hayerok’s International Boarding School – known for its high level of education – at age 16 Eyov participated in a roots trip to Ethiopia. How did this affect her? Her response: 

“Israel is a country of immigrants and second-generation immigrants; almost everyone has roots in the Diaspora which sets us apart as a people. As a child I heard stories about life in Ethiopia but, even though I was born there, it was difficult to connect to the reality. 

“There is a phrase from the Mishna that says, ‘Know where you came from and where you are going.’ The roots trip really made me understand and appreciate the place from where I came. As a child I did not comprehend our lush Ethiopian culture. Ethiopia is stunning in its beauty, and when there I could relate to the stories I had heard as a child.

“It was following this roots experience that I returned my first name to its original Amharic. When I was at school the teacher decided to call me Tali as she felt it would help my integration into Israeli society. Tali was the name I used until my roots trip when I realized that my name is an integral part of who I am. I understood that I need not integrate into Israeli society because I am Israeli society. This is the beauty of Israel – it is made up of different cultures and people who create this ‘Israeliness.’” 

At 19, upon joining the IDF, she was selected to serve in its elite and classified Moran Unit. Following her service she chose to help children at Kibbutz Rachavi’s boarding school.

At 23 she decided to become an au pair, and spent a year with a family in Washington, DC, where she cared for their children. It proved to be an eye-opener. Although there were those in the Jewish community who loved Israel, she was shocked to find many young Jews who knew little or nothing about the Jewish state. Or, if they thought they knew, it proved to be negative. 

ON HER return to Israel, she was ready to enter university. She always wanted to study psychology, primarily because there is a dire shortage of Ethiopian psychologists. Firmly believing that one needs to be Ethiopian to fully comprehend the challenges facing Ethiopian Israelis was a contributing factor in her decision to join the SBC program, where she is helping many Israeli Ethiopian children.

However, when she had to decide her course of study, due to her experience in the US  she decided on a subject that would enable her ultimately to join the Foreign Ministry and become an ambassador. She followed her brother, who had studied at the Reichman University where he had obtained the university’s “Israel @ Heart” scholarship to cover his tuition fees. Her brother currently is a Jewish Agency shaliach (emissary) working with Jewish students at California’s prestigious Stanford University. 

Reichman University offers students from an Ethiopian background the opportunity to apply to the “Israel @ heart” leadership program enabling those with leadership potential to study with their tuition fees totally covered by the program. Eyov is one of 50 current students awarded full scholarships, with her chosen course being “Government, Diplomacy and Strategy.”

What made her decide to follow this path? She firmly believes that Israel’s diplomats serving abroad should focus on Diaspora youngsters and give them a true understanding of Israel. The word hasbara (public diplomacy) or rather lack of it, came up many times in her conversation with the Magazine.

She has definitely zeroed in on a pressing problem. Although Israel has won many military battles, the country seems to have lost the battle of the word. In the era of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, where vile false messages on Israel are swiftly relayed throughout the world, it appears as if we do not have the tools to combat the lies and falsehoods pervading these networks. 

An aspect contributing to the negative image of Israel is the degrading of the Foreign Ministry in recent years, with low salaries and diminishing budgets prompting staff strikes worldwide. Sadly, there are outstanding diplomats who have decided to leave the Foreign Ministry primarily because its status has degenerated; responsibilities, formerly part of the Foreign Ministry, having been reassigned to other ministries. 

What does Eyov hope to achieve one day on realizing her dream to become an ambassador?

“My aim is to be the personal contact with the Jewish community; to connect them to Israel. Personal contact is the most effective tool to help individuals and communities fully comprehend the significance of the Jewish state.”

We can but hope that there will be others like Mawa Eyov with a desire to make a positive difference in the way many, including an increasing number of Diaspora Jews, view Israel today. ■

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes immigrant integration into Israeli society.