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Durban Ii Dispatch: Israel's A-team

Geneva, Switzerland

Just because the Israeli government decided to boycott this year's Durban Review Conference doesn't mean they weren't well-represented in Geneva this week. I was surprised to meet Andy David, the deputy spokesman of Israel's foreign ministry, at a Sabbath dinner last weekend when I arrived in Geneva. "We're here, but we're not here," he whispered to me. He revealed to me that the ministry has quietly brought a group of Israeli students--mostly attractive, eloquent, and from diverse countries of origin--to plead Israel's case on the sidelines of this week's conference. (I would have written about this earlier, but David only discussed the group with me on condition that I wait until they leave Geneva to publicize their presence here.) "This is our A-team," he says.

The ministry decided a few months ago that though Israel wouldn't be participating on an official level, "our voice should be heard," David says. "We can try to affect the message." He and his colleagues sent out a call to university departments and through friends to recruit talented students for the task. They expected a couple dozen applications; they got hundreds. They weeded out applicants by seeing how they responded to particularly vicious attacks on Israel and how they appeared on camera. "We don't just want people who care--we want people who can deliver," David says.

They also wanted people from interesting backgrounds and with different linguistic abilities, in order to show Israel's diversity and to be able to engage with the foreign press. "We want people to be able to draw on their own experiences, to say that as someone of a different skin color or a different religion, Israel has given me so many opportunities," David says. The final group of 14, which includes students from places such as Ethiopia, Italy, and South Africa, were specially trained by ministry staff for the hostile environment of the conference.

Even though Elizabeth Mandeville, a blonde-haired 19-year-old from Norway who is studying diplomacy in Israel, isn't Jewish, she's passionate about defending Israel on the international stage. "I want people to get why it's not right for Israel to be singled out," she says. "This is something I'm on fire about." When I met her on the first day of the conference, she said she is "prepared for anything. We have a minority opinion here, so we're going to get stepped on."

But as I watched the students during the NGO panels, many of them were taken off-guard by the anti-Israel outbursts, unsure how to respond. "They were all just  basking in their own self-glory," says Manville, who sat silently while the Islamophobia panel was hijacked by pro-Palestinian groups (which I wrote about yesterday). "I'm not Jewish, so I really could have said something, but I just couldn't think of anything, which I regret."

Looking back on their work at the end of the conference, most of the students were frustrated by their experience. "When people heard I was from Israel, they didn't want to talk to me," says Emanuel Heymann, a 22-year-old with gel-spiked hair and white-washed jeans originally from Luxembourg, who studies government, diplomacy, and strategy. "They said, 'I don't want to speak to somebody who supports genocide.'" He was surprised by the fact that many NGOs that had nothing to do with the Middle East, such as one group he spoke with who focused on African issues, would dismiss him by saying, "I'm here for the Palestinians." The experience has even made him reevaluate his future career plans. "I always thought that the way to change the world was through the UN," he says. "Now I know that is wrong."

According to Alex Rosemberg, a 28-year-old student originally from Venezuela, if he had to do it all over again, he said he would spend less time trying to counter the anti-Israel propaganda, and more on spotlighting "the real issues." He recalls a scene right after the demonstration outside Ahmedinejad's press conference--one that I think summarizes the entire week quite well. "I was walking down a lonely hallway inside the Palais des Nations, and there, I saw two lonely Darfurians handing out leaflets about their plight," he says. "I thought to myself, how sad is it that these poor people who actually have suffered from racism of the worst kind, have to take a back seat to the political posturing of a racist and dictatorial regime such as Iran."

--Zvika Krieger