How prejudice against Israel hurts its young citizens
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO – Two Israeli college students personally have felt the sting of the world’s prejudice against the citizens of the Jewish State. Under the auspices of StandWithUs, they currently are touring the southwestern United States speaking on high school and college campuses, and telling about their experiences.
Because one is a former Olympian, whose athletic record easily can be found on the Internet, it is impossible to shield his identity, as has been StandWithUs’s usual practice over the 11 tours it has arranged for students who also are former soldiers in the Israel Defense Force. The current “Between the Lines: Voices from Israel” tour is an example of person-to-person diplomacy that gives former Israeli soldiers an opportunity to tell about their lives both in and out of the IDF.
The former Olympian’s name is Ron Darmon and he was Israel’s first-ever competitor in the triathlon event of the Olympics. He placed 26th in a field of 55 participants, who swam, ran and bicycled at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
The other student shall simply be identified as Linda. Like Ron, she also was a former soldier in the IDF. While Ron was a physical fitness instructor, Linda served as a social welfare officer, many of whose clients were Lone Soldiers, who came from distant lands, without their parents, to volunteer for Israel. With the rank of a lieutenant, Linda made certain that they had places to go on the Jewish holidays, that they had host families with whom they could celebrate the Shabbat, and that when they were lonely, or homesick, they had someone with whom they could talk.
In presentations at local schools, Ron and Linda spoke briefly about their former jobs in the IDF, but found that California students more often were interested to learn what day-to-day life in Israel was like, asking such question as what is the climate, and whether they had ever come under rocket attack. But even more so, the American students were interested in Ron’s and Linda’s personal biographies, and the burdens young people can be subjected to just because they are Israelis.
For Ron, the hatred that some countries have for Israel was demonstrated two years before he competed in the Olympics, at a triathlon in Turkey. He had been training with an Australian team, and arriving with the Aussies in Turkey, “I expected to be wearing my country’s uniform and flag, just like everyone else who was competing and representing countries from around the world. Yet, when I arrived I was told I’ll have to wear a black suit, without my nation’s flag on it, with no symbols at all. It was said that it was for my ‘own safety.’ To make it seem better, they called it a ‘neutral suit,’ but all that meant was that I was the only person there who was a ‘man without a flag.’ While everyone else was able to wear their country’s colors and flag, to proudly represent and emphasize where they were from, my identity was stripped away from me.”
The Turkish games came during a time when Israel was at war with Gaza, and feelings against Israel in Muslim countries like Turkey were running high.
Ron said when he learned he could not be identified as an Israeli, he considered two possible courses. One was to stay in the hotel and refuse to compete under such circumstances. The other was “to not let them beat me by taking away my identity and my flag, and instead beat them on the field, and prove to them that an Israeli will stand up for what is right.” So, he competed in his black suit and “about a mile to go I could feel how the other athletes were struggling, so I made ‘my move.’ I crossed the finish line in 3rd place. It was a breathtaking race. I should have been ecstatic, but this time that’s now how I felt.” Medaling in other competitions, Ron had been swarmed by sports media seeking interviews. But this didn’t happen in Turkey. “There was no media,” he said. “Turkey literally silenced it, because an Israeli won. It was the quietest race I’ve ever been to. I stood on the podium to receive my medal, but with no flag behind me, and to be honest I felt ashamed.”
To understand how Ron felt, imagine yourself representing the United States in a major race. Only when you received your medal, there would be no acknowledgment of the U.S.A., no playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, just a quick, almost furtive, grudging presentation of the medal. Hardly the moment young athletes dream about.
Ron said the moment was transformative for him because from that point on, he changed his focus. Yes, he still was an athlete, as qualifying for the 2016 Olympics proved, but he had another cause. That was to stand up for Israel, and to stand against extremism in all its forms.
He said that for the most part he has found that other international athletes are often more tolerant than their governments. “Athletes accept each other,” he said. An international competition “is a place where everybody comes together, so when politics are involved, the athletes combine together against it.” Unfortunately for Ron, he suffered a head injury in a bicycling accident that caused memory loss and reflex issues, probably putting an end to competitive racing.
Linda’s confrontation with anti-Israel prejudice has not been so public, but it has been ongoing. A native of Caracas, Venezuela, she lived in a country where the far-left government was outspoken in its hatred for Israel, and still is. Nearly 17 when her family made Aliyah seven years ago, she left behind relatives and the good friends with whom she had grown up. “I cried a lot, I can’t deny it,” she said. “But I would always thank my parents for the opportunity they gave me to move to Israel.”
Eventually, her Venezuelan passport expired, and with no diplomatic relations between Israel and Venezuela, she is unable to travel to the land of her birth to visit those relatives and friends. She said she won’t be permitted to enter Venezuela on her Israeli passport. Had the situation been otherwise, it would have been relatively easy for Linda, now on tour in North America, to fly afterwards to the South American continent for a reunion with her loved ones.
Nevertheless, Linda says she is happy that she moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to Raanana, Israel, explaining. “Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I have never walked by myself in the street, like a normal person, even while crossing a simple crosswalk. Every time I went somewhere I would have to inform my parents of my every move, and they still never slept peacefully at night, and I totally can understand why. [They] worry all the time because your kids may get kidnaped or killed. You don’t know if at the end of the day they will return home – it is the biggest fear that a parent can have. Robberies and murders were common. Crime was everywhere. We were fearful of kidnapping, especially for ransom. I know a lot of people that got kidnapped, even people from the Jewish community. We all contributed in order to get the right of money to free them. Unfortunately, my good friend fell victim and was killed seven years ago.”
She noted that everyone in Caracas, not just the Jews, are subject to violence. Why did she and her family move to Israel? “I grew up learning a lot about our history and culture. I learned about King David and the ancient kingdom of Judea, where Jews come from in the land of Israel. I was taught about Zionism, which is the movement of self-determination for the Jewish people … Every Shabbat dinner my dad always said, ‘Next year we will be in Jerusalem.’”
Asked what they hope their futures will bring, Linda said that she would like to continue in the field of psychology, which is her major at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Currently a junior, she anticipates a career possibly in clinical psychology. “For an Israeli it is important to find something where I feel like I am supporting my country and giving back,” she told me during an interview at the Trails Eatery in the San Carlos neighborhood. “I feel satisfaction when I speak about Israel and my personal story and what I went through.”
Ron was less certain about his future, calling it the “million-dollar question” and one which his parents frequently pose to him. Ron, newly married, has been studying business and economics at the Open University in Tel Aviv, but at this point is not certain what direction that will take him.
I asked if they could impart just one or two ideas to listeners, what would they be.
Ron said, “For me, the main thing, and this is not just about Israel, is that extremism is bad. You should avoid extremism toward anyone. You should always engage, always try to get the full picture. You can’t get it from one person only, not just from us, but from the other side as well. You have to get the full picture before you really understand.”
Linda voiced a similar sentiment: “We need to look at everything,” she said, “and see the complete picture. “I want to tell people to look at what you are talking about, read as much as you can, talk to people, go to the Middle East, and experience it by yourself.”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted via [email protected] San Diego Jewish World, along with The Moderate Voice, is a member of the San Diego Online News Association. This article is reprinted from San Diego Jewish World.