May 16, 2024  By Dvorah Richman  Category: Travel,

Conversations Matter: Talking With People About Israel

You might be surprised

Along with 2,500 other Zionists from around the world, my husband Paul and I headed to Denver, Colorado last November to attend the four-day emotional, inspirational and informative Jewish National Fund-USA’s Global Conference for Israel.

It was just weeks after Hamas’s October 7 atrocities, and the topic of pro-Israel advocacy and skyrocketing anti-Semitism naturally predominated. Two messages stuck in my brain: in the war of words, it’s critical to talk with other people about Israel; and don’t waste your time talking with people whose minds are already made up.

This was excellent advice, but I didn’t feel comfortable approaching people about Israel.

This changed after we went to Israel in March on two Jewish National Fund-USA Volunteer in Israel Mission Trips. We weeded tomatoes, picked lemons, refreshed evacuated communities, cooked meals for Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, packed gift boxes with items from impacted small businesses in Israel’s north, attended an IDF ceremony for “special needs” soldiers and much more. We connected deeply with Israelis and visited sites of Hamas savagery. There were many powerful highs and lows.

We were frequently reminded to share our experiences with others. One young boy, housed with his evacuated family in our hotel, said his greatest wish was that the world would know the real facts.

Although I hadn’t, and haven’t yet, fully processed my trip, I decided to talk about Israel with people in my diverse Northern Virginia community.

I figured I could start with my agricultural endeavors. After all, this is a non-controversial topic and who wouldn’t understand that crops must be picked or people will go hungry. I planned to share that most agricultural workers were either at the front battling to save their homeland or, facing danger, had returned to their home countries.

I kept other topics in my back pocket to use when appropriate: Jews have been in what is now Israel for more than three thousand years; Israel didn’t start this war, has never started a war and didn’t want this one; and Israel must get rid of Hamas or cease to exist.

Other topics were also ready to use. War is terrible and innocent people die, but Israel’s army goes to great lengths to protect civilians even when Hamas uses them as human shields.  Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from their homes. My repertoire also included “don’t believe most of what you read and hear about Israel.”

I was ready to launch.

I spoke with a woman in my Zumba class who comes from Batswana. She knew little about Israel but listened intently and asked good questions. The conversation progressed, and she told me about her country and family. We bonded.

Next, I had conversations about Israel with an Iranian gentleman in my strength and conditioning class and with my Turkish yoga instructor. A Jewish woman in my spin class overheard a conversation and said she knew virtually nothing about what was happening in Israel. Recalling the “simple child” in our Passover Haggadah, I gave her some basics, including ways to support Israel.

Lest you think I spend all my time at the gym, I had a long conversation with our twenty-something, first generation Vietnamese neighbor who picked up our mail while we were in Israel. He heads off to medical school this summer and will, perhaps, be able to use his new insights to push back on campus radicals who bash Israel.

I bumped into a Nepalese neighbor while walking our dogs. Her family had just returned from their son’s “coming of age” ceremony in Nepal. I spoke about bar and bat mitzvahs, our Israel trip and Hamas atrocities. She told me that Hamas massacred Nepalese students and, in that moment, we mourned together. On a happier note, she recalled that her college roommate was chosen to attend an agricultural program in Israel, probably at the Arava Institute, and had a wonderful experience.  Although we had only met once before, we are now connected.

I shared just a snippet about our trip with the Korean owner of a local repair shop. That led to a deeper conversation about October 7 atrocities, Israeli evacuees and the reinforced indoor playground in Sderot that allows children to play safely without fear of rocket attacks. This was all new to him. He expressed shock, sympathy and support for Israel and anger at “pro-Palestinian” agitators. We talked about his kids, and he told me that he teaches them to think for themselves. It’s a good bet he went home that night and spoke with his wife and children about our conversation.

That’s not all. I spoke about Israel with an Irish ballad singer, the nurse who prepped my husband for his colonoscopy procedure, a woman exiting the movie “One Life”, and the ladies’ walking group in my suburban neighborhood. I had long conversations with my violin teacher, Muslim hairdresser and economist-turned-yoga-teacher friend.

Reactions ranged from mild curiosity to deep interest. There was no hostility. People often asked whether I have family in Israel. I always answered “yes, all nine million Israelis.” Several people, all non-Jews, surprisingly said “thank you for going to Israel and helping.” One total stranger hugged me.

I want to continue having conversations. With the passage of time, I’ll probably need new “hooks.”  There are many possibilities: my Israeli jewelry and “I stand with Israel” wristbands that elicit compliments or comments; the “fake news” of the day; or that the grape tomatoes in my salad remind me of Israel.

In the battle for hearts and minds, there are many opportunities to stand up for Israel. Having conversations is one of them. Keep in mind that most people know little about Israel but are receptive – and often surprisingly supportive.

You don’t need to be an expert. Indeed, in today’s world, a brief, positive interaction can be impactful and even make someone’s day.

So take a deep breath. Jump in. It may be easier than you think, and you might be surprised at yourself and people’s responses.

Originally published in The Times of Israel April 18, 2024.