Visiting young Israelis chat up the country they love

Two young Israelis — one a man who worked in a special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces and the other a black Jewish woman born in Ethiopia — want Americans to see their country through their eyes.

So they have spent the past two weeks touring the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, telling audiences how they are just two normal, young people who live in Israel and love it.

Tslil and Kokit, both 28-year-old residents of Tel Aviv, are part of the sixth annual Israeli Soldiers Tour, sponsored by StandWithUs, an L.A.-based pro-Israel advocacy group.

“I am here to talk about the Israel I know, grew up in and love,” said Tslil. All the former soldiers on the tour are having their last names withheld for security purposes.

Sometimes the soldiers get a tough question, perhaps something about Israel’s controversial operations in Gaza in the winter of 2012 and the summer of 2014.

“People get information from the media and don’t understand what’s really going on in Israel, where the majority of the people want peace,” Kokit said.

However, most of the talks are dominated by positive feelings, one of the SWU organizers pointed out. “Good people are listening to us and supporting us, and that’s lovely,” Kokit said.

The purpose of the tour, which involves 14 young Israelis visiting seven U.S. regions, is to “put a human face on the IDF uniform” and support students’ efforts “to promote and defend Israel amid the virulent anti-Israel movement on college campuses,” according to StandWithUs.

Kokit (left) and Tslil before a talk in Tacoma, Washington

So far, Tslil and Kokit have spoken at Stanford University, U.C. Santa Cruz, Chico State, various Hillel locations, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco and Lowell High School in San Francisco. This weekend, the tour will wrap up with appearances in Sacramento, San Mateo and Fremont.

Said Tslil: “We know there are a lot of emotions when it comes to Israel, but we have not encountered negative feelings and comments from the crowds we have talked to. I assume people who don’t agree with us are not willing to come, and I regret this the most because we believe in having a dialogue.”

While Tslil and Kokit had received warm welcomes, that wasn’t the case two years ago, when two Israelis on the tour were heckled at U.C. Davis, one of three tense encounters during the 2012 speaking tour in Northern California. (An appearance at U.C. Davis this year was scheduled for April 22, after J.’s deadline.)

Going into an April 21 talk at Stanford, Kokit and Tslil said the best questions they had fielded so far had come from high school students. “They are very informed and want to know more about our experiences, such as graduating from high school and joining IDF,” Tslil said. “There is such a difference between what they know and what we have experienced.”

Born in Kibbutz Regavim in northern Israel, Tslil earned his B.A. in political science and communications from Tel Aviv University and is a graduate of the Koteret School of Journalism. He has worked as a spokesperson for Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold a Knesset seat, and is a volunteer spokesperson for One Day Social Volunteering Israel.

Kokit was born in a small village in Ethiopia with no running water and no electricity. “The family was cut off from the rest of the Jewish community and thought that all Jews were black,” she says in her speech. “We still kept our Jewish identity and kept the traditions.” Her family moved to Israel in the late 1990s, when she was an infant.

Some audience members on the tour have been surprised to learn that Kokit is from Ethiopia, and that there are tens of thousands of black African Jews who are Israeli citizens.

“Other audience members have heard that Israelis are not modern, or that everything is about the conflict with the Palestinians,” she added. “And some people are surprised to see two young people — normal, like us.”

Kokit served in the IDF for seven years, as a basic training officer and a safety and training officer at a pilot cadet course. Now she is a third-year student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya who hopes to work in a law office.

Twice Kokit has traveled to South Africa to combat “Israeli Apartheid Week” and speak to students about her experiences as a black Jewish woman living in Israel. There, students asked her about life for a young black woman in Israel.

“I told them that in Israel, everyone is equal with the same rights,” she recapped for J. “I grew up as an Israeli, and I don’t see any difference between my friends and me.”

Israeli Soldiers Tour: Kokit and Tslil, 10:30 a.m. April 25 at Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de Las Pulgas, San Mateo; 6 p.m. April 26 at Convergence House of Prayer, 200 Hammond Ave., Fremont.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.