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Faces of Israel
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Like many things about Israel, the month of May brings a study in opposites.

This May 5 marks Yom HaShoah, a day of mourning for the victims of the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany in its concentration camps.

Just a week later, however, comes the May 12 celebration of Yom Haatzma’ut, marking the day in 1948 when Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion announced the creation of the state of Israel.

But even that happy event is tempered by mourning, because traditionally the day before Israeli Independence Day marks Yom Hazikaron, a somber memorial for the soldiers who gave their lives to achieve their nation’s hard-won independence.

That’s just how it goes with Israel.

“Always in Israel you get joy adjacent with sorrow, sacrifice along with victory,” says 27-year-old Israeli college student Assael Romanelli, one of three young members of a group called Israel at Heart.

Along with 23-year-old Ruti Koren and 22-year-old Osnat Takala, Romanelli is currently touring the southeast region of the U.S. as part of a national outreach effort by the nonprofit group, which sends young Israelis who have completed their military service to address what they say is their nation’s growing image problem in the rest of the world.

Connect Savannah spoke to the three students on April 11 as they were swinging through Savannah to speak to various groups. In a world of slick PR spin doctors, these young ambassadors are refreshingly candid and plain-spoken, often having quite different political views (“This is a good thing,” Romanelli said to me, smiling, when the three began debating among themselves during our interview.)

Connect Savannah: What exactly does Israel at Heart do?

Ruti: It was started in New York City after the Jenin incident in 2002. A businessman named Joey Low sort of felt that Israel was being poorly portrayed by the media. Also, our spokespeople didn’t always speak English properly, or really know how to speak to non-Israeli crowds. So he had the idea of having groups of young people travel around the United States. So it got a life of its own. We want to get the message across that Israel does want look like other nations. We want to be included, we want to be like other nations.

Assael: We’re here to show the diversity within Israel. We’re totally non-affiliated and non-political. We’re not selling anything. The fact that we’re here shows that Israel is starting to be very concerned about how people portray us.

Do you know the number one Israeli TV show is a reality show where someone gets picked to represent Israel to other parts of the world? It’s called the “Ambassador.” Right now it’s the most popular show on Israeli TV. Can you imagine a show like that in America? But it’s our number one show. Go figure.

Connect Savannah: Americans generally only hear about Israel in news reports about terrorism. What is Israeli society really like?

Ruti: Well, you know, just like here, some people are after big cars and money. We’re greatly influenced by U.S. culture -- whether it’s Hollywood, MTV or McDonald’s. But on the other hand we’re smack in the Middle East. That’s our highest influence, both in climate and in culture.

Connect Savannah: I’d think you might be more like Europe. But you say no.

Assael: We’re close to Europe in the music scene, the clubbing scene, and the European fashion scene. But culturally, not so much. We do partake in European Cup soccer (laughs).

Connect Savannah: What do you think of the proposal for Israel to join the European Union?

Ruti: With a more open border policy it would be easier for people to come from Europe and see that we’re more similar to them than they think. They would see that Israel is not a war zone or a battle zone. We have a normal day to day life that’s more like the European life.

Connect Savannah: Your society is also structured pretty differently from America’s, especially economically.

Assael: Originally, the kibbutzim which were established around the borders evolved a natural kind of socialistic state. So yes, you’ve got that aspect that’s very different. But Israel is getting more into globalization, kind of shifting into a more capitalistic society. For example, just like in the U.S., higher education is almost mandatory now in Israel. It’s getting difficult to get a job anymore over there without a college education.

A lot is starting to happen in Israel. It seems like the fog is finally lifting. For example, environmental issues are starting to hit newspapers now, something you’d never dream of hearing about 20 years ago.

And remember that Israel’s only 56 years old. We’ve just gotten past the state of constantly being in danger for our national survival. Israel is a young state embarked on this experiment of trying to live a normal life in a nonnormal situation.

Connect Savannah: Interesting how there’s a rise in

religious fundamentalism around the world just when we become this global society.

Assael: I think a lot of that is a direct reaction to globalization. There’s a theory out there that says when people feel out of control of their own lives and destinies, they turn more toward fundamentalism. That makes them feel more in control of things in their own backyard.

Connect Savannah: Do you worry that globalization will destroy the unique fabric of Israeli life?

Assael: You have to remember that Israel is not only a Jewish state, but a democratic state as well. So sometimes those two things are in tension, and sometimes they work hand in hand. But there is definitely something in the air that makes Israel different. I don’t know if it’s the sense of community or history or what. It’s a very spiritual country for almost all religions.

The other side of that is, everyone seems to want a piece of us, you know? I’m always asking, what about the rest of the 250 million people in the Middle East? Why is it always Israel that gets everyone’s attention?

Connect Savannah: I didn’t realize until recently that many members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, are Arabs, with the same voting rights as Jewish members.

Ruti: They have a lot more rights than Jews would have in any Arab state.

Connect Savannah: Assael, you served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), as every young Israeli male is required to do.

Ruti: And the women must serve as well.

Connect Savannah: What’s the tour of duty?

Assael: Men serve three years, women two.

Connect Savannah: What did you do?

Assael: Before the retreat from Lebanon, I spent a lot of time there. Overall I’ve done a lot of guarding. I still have to serve in the active reserve one month a year. Usually you’re not called for that month, but I was called the last two years.

Ruti: My job in the army was to liaise with international peacekeeping forces. It was a special unit, with a lot of money invested in it. The IDF sees that it has high value to try to have as good terms as we can with different U.N forces in the Middle East.

Connect Savannah: Israel’s a very militarized country, but there doesn’t seem to be that glorification of the military we often see here. Is that because of the compulsory service?

Ruti: Yes, it has the opposite effect. It’s like a melting pot. It kills social status. Israel is a country that absorbed so much immigration. I don’t see how so many different kinds of people would be able to get along without military service. I’ve served alongside Moroccan Jewish citizens whose parents can’t read or write.

Assael: The reality is that the IDF has 20 percent non-Jewish members. When I was in the IDF, I served alongside Arab Christians, Orthodox Jews and Bedouin tribesmen. I served with both Bedouin and Jewish Arabs, slept in the same tents with them.

Connect Savannah: What do you usually talk to youth groups about?

Ruti: What we try to do is show Israel beyond the conflict. We want people to know we are very similar. We share the same dreams and a lot of the same values.

Connect Savannah: What’s the reaction been like?

Assael: Well, one kid in North Carolina told me I was going to hell because my people killed Jesus. I have to say, that was pretty weird. But that’s not the usual response. Usually they’re sort of surprised, after the stuff about the IDF and the conflict is put aside. Soon, they realize we have the same challenges, frustrations and dreams -- much more than we both thought. Young people are so used to speakers with PC answers that don’t really say anything.

We often start relating to the same frustrations they’re feeling here. We ask them, how would you represent the U.S. if you were traveling around other countries? And you know, that’s a pretty tough question.

Connect Savannah: What are some frustrations U.S. students share with you?

Assael: Mostly this sense of being alienated and completely disconnected from the system -- like whatever they say on the environment or on politics, for example, doesn’t matter or isn’t being considered.

Connect Savannah: How did each of your families end up in Israel?

Osnat: It was always our dream to come to Israel. For us it had more to do with the Zionist dream than for people that were born in Israel.

Assael: There are 130,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Osnat: We came in two operations, one in the ‘80s and one in the ‘90s. In the ‘80s we lived in a small village near Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. One day my grandfather said, “We are going to go to Jerusalem, the city of gold, the promised land.” We didn’t have cars or airplanes, so we walked.

Connect Savannah: You walked all the way to Israel?

Osnat: We walked at night, usually without food and without water. We did spend a year in a refugee camp in Sudan, because of -- how do you say it -- the political situation. In that year 6000 Ethiopians died. So for me to be in Israel is like a daydream. My experience in Israel is very emotional.

(Editor’s Note: The exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the ‘80s & ‘90s is an amazing story in itself. Go to for more info.)

Ruti: My mother’s family came from Lithuania. My grandmother survived the Holocaust, but most of my family didn’t. After the war, when my parents married they suffered from a lot of anti-Semitism in Lithuania. But overall they had a good life. No one kicked them out.

Then after the state of Israel was founded, they started talking about fulfilling the biggest dream ever. A big part of that decision was the Holocaust and everything the family had come through. No one believed what the government said, that it couldn’t happen again. That is a thing common to a lot of Jews in Europe after World War II.

Assael: My family came to the U.S. from Russia in 1920. My father was really just an Italian Jew from Brooklyn (laughs). He was doing well, with a high position in the State Department. He was actually in Newfoundland when he got engaged, and realized he wanted to move to Israel. So at age 33 he packed his bags and left. That was in 1972.

Connect Savannah: He quit his State Department job?

Assael: Yes. In Israel we have a saying, “He who is rich is the one who is happy with what he has.”

Connect Savannah: There’s an extraordinary amount of free debate in Israeli politics as compared to here. The Israeli press, in particular, seems very vibrant.

Ruti: Yes, the Israeli media is very free. There are a lot of opinions. It’s good and it’s bad in a way, you know, because the media surrounding us in the rest of the region are not so free. So they are often saying things that aren’t true.

Connect Savannah: What do you hope will come out of your visit to America?

Ruti: We hope for a positive message out of all this. What we’re doing is much easier to do right now than to do one year ago or a year from now.

Connect Savannah: Really? How so?

Ruti: People are smiling more now in Israel. There are political issues, and still sometimes people feel they don’t have enough influence. But at least something’s being done, you know? It used to be that Israelis were like, walking around with this weight on them all the time. Things are moving forward now.

Connect Savannah: How do you think it will all turn out?

Ruti: The next ten years will answer it. w

Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, will be marked in Savannah on Thursday, May 5, at 7 p.m. at the JEA (see sidebar). Free and open to the public. The film Paper Clips will be screened Tuesday, May 3 at 7 p.m. at the JEA (see review) Free & open to the public. To comment on this story in a letter to the editor, e-mail us at