With their country suffering a run of image problems, Mikhal Tal and Ami Levine took three weeks off from classes to make a pitch for Israel at high schools from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
It hasn’t been easy. At some schools they found a complete lack of interest, whereas at others they had to explain Israeli government policies that are at odds with their own thinking.
But Arab unrest on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip has not been the only topic. The 17-year-olds on the circuit have found themselves answering questions about sex, cars, drugs and clothes.
They were also asked about the generation gap, a concept that did not translate easily at first.
“You know, over here a lot of parents don’t understand their kids,” one student at University High School in Los Angeles explained.
“Aha,” Tal, a Haifa resident, said with a smile of recognition. “That’s an international problem.”
Tal and Levine came to California as part of a 15-year-old program intended to help acquaint young people in other countries with life in the Jewish state, said Ilan Mor, an Israeli diplomat who accompanied the teen-agers to University High in West Los Angeles.
Seventy-two Israeli high school seniors were chosen for the program after passing a battery of written and oral exams. After undergoing a two-week training program, the students were sent to the United States, Canada, South America and Europe as “messengers of good will,” he said.
“This is not propaganda in any way whatsoever,” Mor said. “The fact that it has been going on since 1973, when we didn’t have a P.R. problem, speaks for itself.”
He also pointed out that both Tal and Levine were frank about their own willingness to give up occupied land for peace, a position that is at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s determination to resist territorial concessions.
“This shows how we’re a democracy, and that we can send our students all over the world to exchange opinions,” he said.
With both of them facing induction into the Israeli army, Tal and Levine said Israel’s sensitive location makes world politics come alive for youngsters there in a way that many Americans may not understand.
“The main debate now is whether to keep the territories (occupied by Israel in 1967) or to establish a Palestinian state,” Levine told a social studies class.
“The right wing thinks it must be legally part of Israel. The left wing thinks we must negotiate with the Arabs, possibly with Arafat, and a Palestinian state must be established. Most of the youth, as well as the adults, are divided on this.”
But other concerns were universal.
“Do you dress the same as we do?” a student asked. Showing off their jeans and sneakers, Tal said, “we import most of our clothing from the United States and Europe, so we dress the same way.”
Another student asked about class hours, which set off groans of sympathy when Levine said he starts classes at the high school near his kibbutz collective farm near the Sea of Galilee at 6:40 a.m.
Drinking, Drugs, Sex
Tal and Levine also said there are few drinking problems among Israeli teen-agers despite the lack of a minimum drinking age and that although there are illegal drugs, most abusers are older than 21.
As for sex, “This is a very high stage in the relationship between a boy and a girl. It’s not just like that,” Tal said, snapping his fingers.
The visit by the Israelis was not the only foreign delegation to visit University High School recently, Assistant Principal Thomas M. Rayburn said.
Three Korean students who visited in February stunned students by telling them they spend up to 60 hours a week in class, he said.
“There is a lot of interest from our students’ point of view both about how things work in another country, and how we’re similar and how we’re different,” he said.