Neils become apologetically Israeli


IT is pretty obvious within a minute of speaking to British-born educator Neil Lazarus that he has become Israeli.

He has a matter-of-fact manner, but one which is laced with good humour and a proactive mind.

"Being Israeli and British is a lethal combination," Neil told me on one of his regular visits back to Blighty.

"I will push into a line, but apologise straight away for it and feel guilty.

"It is an interesting combination, but, then again, I have lived longer in Israel than I ever did in the UK.

"I think that if I fell over in the street in Israel, someone would come and help me up. I am not so sure that would happen in London."

Neil, the founder and director of Israel advocacy website AwesomeSeminars, speaks to more than 30,000 people each year, all over the world.

He also works as a consultant, with his clients including the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israel Defence Forces, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and Yad Vashem.

Londoner Neil moved to Israel in 1988 when he was 21, initially for six months, and laughs as he describes himself as "still on my year out".

"I truly believe that, as People of the Book, we have a choice - we can read or write history," he said.

"In Israel, we are writing it, we are making an impact and we are playing a part in Jewish history.

"Even if you are not religious, you come to Israel and you walk the path of the patriarchs."

The great-grandson of Polish immigrants, he was raised by parents Barbara and Harold in a traditional Jewish family, one of three children.

They went to synagogue three times a year - "or four if my parents were feeling particularly guilty," he joked.

Active in the Jewish youth group BBYO, Neil read political science at the University of South Wales, in Swansea.

And it was there that he experienced his first taste of antisemitism on campus.

"I remember walking around campus and seeing pictures of the al-Aqsa mosque with a Star of David and a snake coming out through it," Neil said.

"I complained about that poster. It was my introduction to standing up for Israel.

"There were only two Jewish students on campus at that time - me and another guy. We lived together and called our flat Hillel House!"

After graduating, he decided to take a gap year programme in Israel, but it was not necessarily his intention to make a life there.

Neil, who will celebrate his 50th birthday next month, explained: "I had been on two BBYO tours to Israel, but it was not like I was definitely going to move there after I graduated."

He went on to take a master's in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A year before Neil had arrived in the Jewish state, the first intifada had broken out.

And the country was a very different place to what it is now.

"Firstly, of course, there has been a huge leap in technology and Israel was a country which was continuing to develop, as it is today," Neil recalled.

"I remember taking coins to the local phonebox to try to phone England.

"Nowadays, it is instantaneous via Skype, WhatsApp or whatever.

"The mass aliya from Russia had not yet happened when I moved to Israel, either."

He began to work in informal education and established AwesomeSeminars.

One of Neil's roles involves training people to create their own seminar, therefore speaking effectively about Israel, as well as exploring its political issues.

"I wanted to create a voice and an ability for people interested in Israel," the father of twin daughters continued.

"It is about having a resource which is reliable. That does not mean I support everything the Israeli government does, but I give people the chance to explore the choices and the challenges that Israel faces.

"However, at the end of the day, anti-Zionism is antisemitism rebranded. These people will always find a way to delegitimise Israel.

"They do not recognise the Jews as a people with a right to their land."

He also talks to Jews who visit Israel, such as those on UJIA's Birthright programme, and school groups, too.

But Neil's audiences are not just made up of Jewish students, but also many pro-Israel Christian groups.

And his recent visit to Britain included talks at various universities.

"The tactics change, but the intentions are the same - many students believe that Zionism is racism," explained Neil, who lives in Tzur Hadassah, in the Judean Hills.

"When I was at university, there were motions condemning Israel. Today it is called the BDS movement.

"The reality is that Jewish students have to stand up for their rights.

"Ignoring antisemitism will not go well - it is a cancer and you have to remove it.

"The British government is well aware of the problem on campuses and its dangers.

"I was at Exeter University and addressed a mixed crowd, including members of the Arabic Society and Egyptian students.

"The idea is to be able to have a discussion. Even if you do not agree, you can have an understanding."

Neil, who is married to fellow Brit Elizabeth, has also seen many political developments during his near-30 years in Israel.

"The early 1990s was a period of hope, with the Oslo Accords and the peace agreement with Jordan," he continued. "There was also the possibility of peace with Syria.

"Then came (Israeli prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the second intifada and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

"The situation became worse and not better. Living here, Israeli society changes you.

"I was speaking to non-Israelis who are planning a conference here in late 2017/early 2018.

"That made me laugh, because in Israel, it is much more about short-termism.

"It is a society which does not necessarily look to the long-term because there are immediate challenges to deal with."

Happy and content in Israel, Neil ponders just how long he will continue to do his job.

"I will probably stop on the way to my funeral and give a seminar," he laughed.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph