To Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury, to understand what it’s like to live in Israel, you need to hear about it firsthand — especially if it’s an Israeli population you might not know much about.
That’s why he is participating in a panel of speakers of diverse backgrounds to talk about their lives in Israel as part of the “Arabs Breaking the Silence” tour with Reservists on Duty, a pro-Israel organization founded to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses, in partnership with Students Supporting Israel (SSI).
“I’ve always said that in order to try and refute the claims said by the BDS and other organizations, especially on college campuses, it needs to come from Israel’s minorities because these voices aren’t heard,” said Elkhoury, an Israeli-Lebanese Christian who serves as the minorities coordinator for Reservists on Duty. BDS is an acronym for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Elkhoury joins Mohammad Kabiya, a Muslim Israeli Bedouin; Ram Asad, a Druze Israeli; Dema Taya, an Arab-Israeli Muslim; and Bassem Eid, a Muslim Palestinian human rights activist.
“This is the first time ever that we have … a joint group together of all Israeli minorities that present their stories and their uniqueness living in Israel,” he said.
Along their 12-campus tour, they made a stop at the University of Pennsylvania with the newly formed SSI-UPenn on Oct. 25.
“Since I am an Israeli-American and an active Jew, it’s important to raise awareness about the diversity of Israeli society even in a Jewish-majority state,” noted Natan Yakov, the Penn sophomore who founded the university’s SSI chapter. “When students attend these events, they know they are free to challenge their intellectual boundaries and broaden their horizons about Israel and the Israeli people in a constructive and respectful discourse and forum.”
Elkhoury, who lives in Haifa, came to Israel from Lebanon when he was 9. His father was a soldier for the South Lebanon Army, which Elkhoury said joined with the IDF to protect Christian communities in Lebanon persecuted by extremists and terrorist organizations, as well as the northern border when rockets were fired toward Israel.
When his father found himself in a situation in which he could have been persecuted for being a part of the army, he fled to Israel. Elkhoury, his brother and mother followed a year and a half later.
“I talk about the experience I had as a young child moving into this foreign country with a foreign language, and how I was welcomed and I was helped by other Israelis surrounding me,” he said.
He did national service with the IDF, in which participants volunteer full time for one or two years, and he encourages others to do the same. Arab citizens of Israel are not subject to the military draft.
“[Israel] is our country and we need to be part of this country, we need to give hand and help our community as well as they help us,” he explained.
They’ve been specifically visiting college campuses and have “happily” not faced any issues like they did on their second stop of the tour at Stanford University. The venue changed at the last minute because The Stanford Israel Association pulled its support of the program at the last minute, according to JNS.org. It was scheduled to take place at the campus’ Hillel facility. Instead, Stanford Chabad stepped in to host the group.
Elkhoury hopes students are better able to combat claims that may be untrue, such as the canard that minorities do not have rights in Israel or do not have the same freedoms.
“This is our purpose, is to give them knowledge and tools to know about us, and on the other hand to refute the claim that the BDS movement and [organizations] like [Students for Justice in Palestine] on campuses are saying about us,” Elkhoury said. “We need to know how to communicate with each other.”
Other speakers, like Ram Asad, hope students will be encouraged to look up the information for themselves and think critically.
“I want people to doubt what I’ll say and then check it out and then believe me,” he said, “because that’s for the best for them.”
Asad, who spent two years as a combat soldier in the IDF, shared his experiences growing up as a Druze Israeli and living in a community of Jews and Arabs. He talked about his father, who founded the annual Druze Sons’ Trail race, which commemorates fallen Druze soldiers in the IDF.
For him, the tour has been fun so far, but the value is getting to educate others about the Druze community.
“I like to explain to them what is that, how we live in Israel and how we work in Israel and how we get involved in society,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing for me.”
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