|Noam Nathaniel, center, holding a pamphlet, explains the story of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to students at Tenafly High School. Noam is the founder of the school’s Israeli culture club, which wore T-shirts with the soldier’s picture last week.|
Students at Tenafly High School learned firsthand about Gilad Shalit last week when members of the school’s Israel culture club showed up in T-shirts bearing the captured soldier’s picture.
The terrorist group Hamas captured Shalit, then a 19-year-old corporal, on June 25, 2006. He has been held captive in Gaza since. Last month, Hamas released a recent video of Shalit in exchange for 20 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Though Shalit’s plight is familiar to Israel’s supporters and the politically savvy, the average teenager isn’t as knowledgeable about the soldier’s fate, according to the Israel club’s founder, 17-year-old Noam Nathaniel. As a result, the club decided to print dozens of T-shirts and spend Oct. 12 talking about Shalit’s ordeal.
“We wanted to raise awareness about the kidnapped soldier,” said the Tenafly senior who created the club last year. “It was amazing. So many people participated and asked questions. I was surprised by how many people got involved.”
According to Noam, some 90 students ended up wearing the shirts throughout the day, including many who purchased them from club members.
With such a politically charged subject, organizers first had to convince the administration that the event would not cause a disruption. Noam said some students who sided with the Palestinians asked club members if they were sure they were supporting the right cause, but otherwise the day proceeded incident-free.
In response to those types of questions, Noam showed questioners an article from the New York Times citing Israel’s release of 20 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a videotape demonstrating that Shalit is still alive. The article, he said, barely mentioned Shalit’s ordeal or Hamas’ failure to follow international law and allow aid organizations access to him.
“People take those articles and use it to form their opinions,” he said. “They don’t represent the whole picture.”
Because of Shalit’s age, his cause has captured the attention of younger activists, said Anat Firnberg, the club’s adviser.
“A lot of people, especially young people, are involved in the campaign for [Shalit’s] release,” she said. “[Club members] wanted to show solidarity and show that just like the people in Israel, they are concerned.”
Though Tenafly has a large Israeli population and Noam said the atmosphere in the school is generally positive, he started the club in response to what he saw as a public backlash against Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
“People were saying that [Israelis] are too violent,” he recalled. “People in school were talking about it. I thought it would make people look at us differently.”
With the help of AP chemistry teacher Firnberg, Noam launched the club in early 2009. It quickly gained the attention of some 90 students, according to Noam, and now runs several events a year. Last year, the club held two bake sales to raise money, which it used to run a Yom HaShoah memorial program and to mark Israel’s independence day.
The club is a celebration of Israeli culture, Firnberg said.
“It’s a place for Israeli kids to be together, because a lot of them are here for a very short period of time,” she said, noting that many students’ families are here on short-term work assignments.
Club members will often discuss current events, but organizers walk a fine line to avoid causing political discord. Firnberg noted that the club had to call its Yom Ha’Atzmaut event a celebration of Israeli culture rather than a celebration of Israel’s birthday.
The club must also separate Israeli culture from Jewish religion, in compliance with school regulations. It instead focuses on Israeli culture, history, current events, Israel-specific holidays, and social activities.
“It should be open to everybody,” Firnberg said. “Israelis, Jews, non-Jews….”
Calls to the high school’s principal, Dora Kontogiannis, were not returned by press time.
Only one anti-Israel incident has been recorded in the club’s short history. The burnt remains of one of the flags used in the independence day celebration were found in a Tenafly street several hours after the event. A police report was filed but nothing came of the investigation. Overall, though, Noam said he is pleased by the club’s results.
“The [Israeli] image is much better,” he said.