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Seeing Israel changed mind of Hispanic opponent

San Diego Jewish World

Donald Harrison

26 February 2019


SAN DIEGO – Although Sebastian Parra grew up in Cali, Colombia, with the words of Genesis 12:3 intoned frequently at his Protestant church, anti-Israel propagandists in the United States knew just how to destroy his faith in God’s declaration to Abram, that “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”


Parra had come as a refugee to the U.S. with his family members after suffering the horror of his politically active grandfather and uncles being assassinated. In his city, the military had routinely set up road blocks at which Parra, even as a young boy, had been subjected to searches.


So, when the anti-Israel crowds at Montclair State University in New Jersey and Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta told him that Israel sets up checkpoints through which Palestinians have to pass, he remembered his own experience, and he was incensed. When they told him that the Israeli military runs roughshod over Palestinian civilians, he burned with his own memories.


And so, he related in an interview on Tuesday, he left the evangelical church in which he was raised, for which he had served as a missionary in Puerto Rico and in New Jersey, and in which he once had gone through a “bar mitzvah” ceremony modeled on those that initiate Jewish boys into their faith. Living in Georgia, he threw himself into the progressive wing of Democratic politics. He was a president of the Young Democrats, and he led a campaign against five Georgia universities that barred from enrollment immigrant youths who had been brought to this country when they were children, even though they were staying in this country legally pending determinative DACA legislation. He said the movement created Freedom University of Georgia — better known as FU Georgia — and it won him friends and the Martin Luther King Multiculturalism Award. He also was elected student body president at Georgia State – the first Latino to win the post.


He and his friends scorned the anti-immigration movement, and they denounced walls. “No walls for Mexico, no walls for Palestine,” they chanted. Parra not only was persuaded by the anti-Israel crowd, he became one of its leaders, favoring the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel; urging that the Birthright program be kept off campus; demanding that the university not invite any pro-Israel faculty to teach. He believed Israel was an enemy state.


And then came an invitation from StandWithUs. Would he like to join nine other student body presidents from diverse parts of the United States on a learning trip to Israel? His first reaction, he told me, was “Hell no, I’ m not gong to this horrible country, this occupation place,” but then, surprisingly, he reconsidered.


Maybe he could use the trip to see the “occupation” first hand; maybe he could use it to burnish his Middle Eastern credentials. So he agreed, even though agreeing meant that he had to forego a student government retreat that was occurring the same time in that summer of 2015.


Parra said his trip to Israel was a revelation to him. In Montclair, New Jersey, he said, he saw many Jews, and he conceptualized Israel as a place where there were white men, with side curls, and black clothes, dominating an indigenous population.


“I was ignorant,” he said. But he learned.


One of his first learning experiences was on a taxicab ride. He asked the driver where he was from. “Yemen,” the driver responded. “Oh, so you are a Muslim?” asked Parra. “No, I’m a Jew,” responded the driver. Parra had not known how diverse Israel’s population was, nor how many Jews came from predominantly Muslim countries like Yemen. “I think what Latinos failed to realize was that Jewish people are not just white (Europeans), they are indigenous to their area, like the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Incas. I think in Israel the majority are not Ashkenazi.”


He also learned that contrary to what the anti-Israel crowd had told him, there was no apartheid in Israel, that it was a land of many cultures and religions with equal rights and opportunities for advancement.


Another learning experience for him was meeting informally with soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, young men and women no older than himself. They told him that they are governed by the rules of engagement. One soldier told him about a situation in Gaza in which the Israeli commander knew that hostile fire had been coming from a mosque. He could have called in an airstrike to blow the place up, but destroying a religious sanctuary went against his grain. The other choice was to send in special forces to neutralize the hostile forces. The problem was his own brother was in the unit. He had perhaps five seconds to make the decision to send in his brother’s unit.


“They are governed by a moral code in the army,” Parra said. “In Colombia, there was no such moral code.” In his city, he said, members of the military raped the girls. One time, he stated, the military took helicopters, painted them with the Red Crosses, and bombed guerrilla forces in Ecuador. He asked me if I knew that Israeli soldiers are not supposed to fire at someone with a Molotov cocktail, unless that person is actually throwing it, and then and only then, they are supposed to fire below the knees. No, I didn’t know.


When Parra returned to Atlanta, his attitude toward Israel was changed. During the Fall 2015 mini-Intifada, he tweeted on his student body account that Israel was under attack and the world was silent. He urged students not to be silent. “After that tweet, I got a lot of hate,” he recounted. Students for Justice in Palestine wanted him to be thrown out of office. “They said that I supported genocide, that I was xenophobic, and all these horrible things.” In the debate over whether Parra should remain in office, he was to be pitted against a member of the anti-Israel crowd who had a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies. “I knew that Israel wasn’t an apartheid state, but I didn’t know how to say it,” Parra recalled. StandWithUs learned of his dilemma and sent up from Miami a coordinator who helped him prepare for the debate. He did well. He maintained his student office.


Parra also returned to his church, prompting his pastor to celebrate that the Prodigal Son had returned home. Now, Parra is one of the church’s youth leaders. He is preparing to become a volunteer pastor.


Prior to his graduation in 2006, Parra attended a StandWithUs conference, and also attended an AIPAC convention. Eventually, StandWithUs hired him for a job in Chicago as an SWU representative on Midwestern college campuses.


After learning the StandWithUs ropes, he suggested a way in which he might be of greater use to the organization which speaks out for Israel on college, high school and middle school campuses. He suggested that an outreach program to Hispanics be set up, with fellowships created for Christian college students to learn about Israel, even as he had. Parra is now SWU’s Hispanic Outreach Coordinator, recruiting friends for Israel and countering anti-Israel propaganda.


Parra visited San Diego to meet with local StandWithUs board members and participate in a lunch and learn session before traveling to Los Angeles for SWU’s annual “Israel in Focus” International Conference. In all likelihood, he’ll be back in San Diego County to meet with San Diego Latinos.


Read the article here.

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