The Meet the Israelis programme aims to promote dialogue and foster genuine discussions with Israeli individuals.
This way, the international community can get an idea of what a ‘typical’ Israeli’s real-life experiences are, as opposed to engaging solely with news reports addressing conflict. The group runs in Israel and the US and is about to hit South African shores, led by South African coordinator, Guillermo Lapidus.
Before COVID-19, visiting companies, schools or travelling groups attended sessions in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The participants split into groups of five or six and each group is paired with a panel-member — the Israeli.
Typically, a panel consists of six people representing a range of the Israeli demographic: an Ethiopian-Israeli, a Haredi, an Arab-Israeli, a soldier, a leftist and a settler. Sometimes the panel also includes a student and/or a member of the Bedouin community. The panel-members spend about 15 minutes with each group of participants, where they share their stories and answer questions before rotating to the next group. The programme typically runs for 90 minutes. In this way, participants are exposed to the way in which six individuals live as Israelis.
While the pandemic halted live sessions, the programme has been able to extend its scope by operating internationally via Zoom, with each 15-minute segment taking place in virtual rooms. Guillermo explains, “We realised that we can reach many more people this way, COVID or no COVID. We’ve discovered a new way of connecting people which is working very well.”
Each programme’s content depends on client specifications. For example, if the client wishes to engage with student experiences and politics, then perhaps only a leftist, student and settler will make up the panel.
The organisation, while pro-Israel is non-partisan. Guillermo notes, “We don’t affiliate ourselves with any religious denomination. The participant or panellist might, and that’s okay. We don’t dictate what they say. They must be honest. The whole thing is about opening a dialogue and at the end of the day the people in the group they might agree to disagree and that’s fine… The whole idea is about discussing and talking to a citizen of the country”.
Meet the Israelis is designed for any group or organisation (Jewish or not) who wants to learn more about Israeli life. The only rule is that participants remain respectful of each other. For Guillermo, Meet the Israelis allows people to develop an accurate understanding of Israel so that, if they wish to make Aliyah, they are well-prepared and, if they do not, they are able to defend themselves as Jews when talking to others about Israel.
“Real people, real opinions, real dialogue – that’s the essence”, says Guillermo, who has lived in Cape Town for forty years, made Aliyah twice and whose family resides in Israel.
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