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Israeli general, student organization wants focus on a peaceful message

Although USF Hillel, a Jewish student organization, will be facing its share of adversity in the upcoming weeks, its message now is one of peace.

Members from Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) will protest Hillel next week.

But for now, Hillel says it is focused on “Israel Peace Week,” held in celebration of Israel’s 62nd independence day on April 19.

Israeli Deputy Consul General Paul Hirschson spoke at USF on Monday and Tuesday night about misconceptions that Americans have of Israel – misconceptions that can lead to poor relations.

“We want to engage people in relations with Israel on all levels,” Hirschson said. “People don’t realize that the day-to-day life in Israel is like the day-to-day life in America.”

Hirschson is a diplomat to Florida and Puerto Rico, working from “the bottom up” to promote relations between Israel and the U.S, he said. His lecture at USF was part of a nationwide tour to inform students and faculty members at universities of the reality of American relationships with Israel.

Hirschson said he has spent time all over the world, but he has not seen a more “warm and positive approach” to international relations than in the U.S.

“Since the 1960s, Israel and the United States have been extremely close,” Hirschson said.

The U.S. is Israel’s top partner in trade, with Florida accounting for roughly 1 percent of the market.

“Israel has exported more technology than Saudi Arabia has in oil,” Hirschson said. “Technology is what Israel is about today.”

And students come in contact with that technology every day, he said. While Israel may not produce laptops or Blackberry devices it creates the technology they run on.

Hirschson said many American universities have attempted to bridge the cultural gap with Israel. The University of Florida shares a dance program with an Israeli university, while the University of Miami has an archeological relationship with an Israeli university.

However, Len Steinberg, a senior majoring in management and a program intern at USF Hillel, said the Israeli population is underrepresented at USF.

“There is a very low amount of Jewish students on campus compared to other schools that are the same size,” Steinberg said. “There is about one and a half percent population of Jewish students at USF.”

USF Hillel has an average of 20 to 25 active student members, Steinberg said. He hopes as USF grows, Hillel can will grow as well.

While Hirschson spoke of the strong economic and political bond the U.S. has with Israel, Sam Pearlson, a Hillel member and a senior majoring in creative writing and religious studies, said he hopes protesters don’t deter students from Hillel.

“It’s not conducive,” Pearlson said of protesters like WBC. “Take an active stance, go out and learn … Go to Israel and see the real deal.”