On Thursday, the Write On students began their day at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The 43 students had the privilege to hear first from Ron Gerstenfeld, Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the MFA. Gerstenfeld provided a history of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. He explained how the founder of the organization, Omar Barghouti, was born in Qatar and studied at Tel Aviv University. Gerstenfeld called it “hypocrisy” that Barghouti lives in Israel proper, what he calls an apartheid state. And while BDS claims to support a two-state solution, Barghouti has said otherwise, advocating for a one-state solution, explained Gerstenfeld. The speaker also offered the students ways to promote Israel’s position on campus but focused more on how to limit BDS’s effect on business.
The next speaker, the Director of Digital Diplomacy at the MFA, DJ Schneeweiss, spoke about the ministry’s presence on social media and the Internet. He told the students, “own your story and tell it,” explaining to them the power of social media, namely Facebook and Twitter. The Israeli MFA runs 20 accounts on Twitter alone, using the medium to influence policy and public opinion. In fact, Israel’s foreign ministry is the #1 embassy on Weibo, the Chinese blogging website that combines elements of Twitter and Facebook. Schneeweiss also offered the students the advice, “It’s not what you say, it’s how they hear it,” telling the students to use the right language based on their audience.
After lunch, the students visited the Channel 2 news station. A field producer at the channel gave the students a general tour of the facility, allowing the Write On fellows to use the teleprompter and view the control room. Soon after, Ehud Yaari, a journalist, TV personality, author, and one of the foremost scholars on the Middle East, met with the Write On students and spoke about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the future of the Middle East. Yaari explained how the Arab Spring has affected the region and how the situation might change under President Donald Trump.
The next part of the day consisted of journeying to Yad Vashem. On the way there, the students had the chance to witness a graduation ceremony of Israeli paratroopers, who had just completed basic training. At Yad Vashem, students had the chance to connect to their ancestors and their roots. Together, they journeyed throughout the courtyards of Yad Vashem, visiting the Children’s Memorial and a small cattle car that carried over 100 people to their deaths. The Children’s Memorial consisted of six candles lit in a dark room of mirrors, creating the illusion of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of candles.
To end the day, the Write On fellows heard from journalists Yossi Klein Halevi and Khaled Abu Toameh. Abu Toameh centered his discussion on his claim, “The two-state solution died a long time ago,” identifying two major problems as obstructing peace – the absence of unbiased non-antisemitic education for Palestinian children and the absence of Palestinian leadership to offer Israel concessions for peace. Halevi asked the students to “take in the complexity” and to strive for a “centrist sensibility” rather than supporting a highly partisan side in the conflict.