LONDON – It was the last thing the residents of one of New York's Latin communities expected when they gathered at the auditorium that evening. The community members, not exactly ardent Israel supporters, ordered a lecture about Israel from El Al, but stressed that they were not interested in listening to "a representative of the government."
Several hundreds of them arrived for the lecture at the appointed hour. The door opened and a Druze flight attendant, wearing a hat with a Star of David on it, walked into the hall. "Nice to meet you, I am Firas Farhoud," he said. "Instead of going shopping, I came to talk to you about my life in Israel." silence fell on the room.
Farhoud, 28, an El Al steward from the village of Rameh in the Galilee, told the audience about his personal experience as a member of a minority group in Israel. "I told them that I served in the military, that the Israeli society accepts me as an equal among equals, and I spoke about the customs of the Druze community," he recounts.
"Many of the attendees didn't even know about the difference between Druze and other minorities living in Israel. They asked me how we live in Israel and speak Arabic, how we integrate into the defense establishment.
"When I stood in front of the audience, I felt that I was representing the State of Israel through my personal story, but also the Druze community in Israel."
Farhoud is one of the unusual participants in the El Al Ambassadors project, in which some 100 of the company's flight attendants volunteer to take an active role in Israeli PR.
The flight attendants underwent special training in cooperation with the Jewish Agency in order to deal with an audience all around the world, including in hostile and challenging places, and they deliver these lectures for free, at their spare time.
A Druze steward praising Israel, voluntarily, is not a common sight, but that's not the only surprise El Al has in store: One of the project's participants is an Arab stewardess, who chose not to be interviewed, "because there are people around her who don't approve of the fact that she works for El Al to begin with," explains Alon Futterman, the project director.
"She enters the auditorium and tells the audience: Before you label me as an Arab, a member of a minority group in Israel, listen to my story.' She can speak about '48 and about the community she lives in, but she chooses to tell a personal, different story."
This initiative is the brainchild of El Al's outgoing CEO Major-General (res.) Eliezer Shkedy, who decided that the airline should take part in Israel's hasbara efforts. He asked Futterman, who is in charge of the Jewish Agency's emissaries project, to get it going.
"The idea was that each of the flight attendants would tell his or her personal life story, and not necessarily promote the State of Israel's activity," says Futterman. "When you talk to an audience at eye level and bring your personal story as a person living in a special country, it's easier for people to connect to you.
"We thought that about 20 people would apply," he adds. "When we received applications from 600 stewards and pilots, we realized that we had touched an exposed nerve."
One of them is Danny Young, 26, who immigrated to Israel from London about 10 years ago. Last week he landed at Heathrow Airport in London, and like his fellow flight attendants he stood at the entrance to the plane and thanked the passengers for flying with El Al.
But unlike his friends, who rushed to deposit their luggage and go on a shopping spree on Oxford Street, Young made his way to a synagogue in northern London, where he met with an audience of several hundreds of the city's Jews who arrived to listen to him lecture about his life in Israel.
"On the BBC and news networks in England, Israel is not presented accurately," Young said at the end of the lecture. "The networks stress the conflict, without showing Israel's other, beautiful sides. People here think that the Israelis are aggressive, and so it was important for me to come here and speak about my aliyah and about the wonderful life in Tel Aviv."
Young was joined by an older stewardess, a mother who sends her children to the army. "There were women her age sitting in the audience, who within minutes connected to the story and understood her point of view," he says. "You could see in the eyes of the people in the audience that our stories shattered a certain image of Israel."
Farhoud has no doubt either that the lectures have a significant effect on the way Israel is perceived.
"In the beginning of the lecture you hear the prejudice people have, and you give them tools to reshape their minds. I don't talk about politics, but about the human aspect of life in Israel, without slogans and without a media outlet distorting my remarks. After the lecture in New York I was approached by people who asked questions and said they were exposed to entirely new information," he says.
"Many of them said that they had thought the Palestinians were the only minority in Israel. They didn't know about the Druze minority and about the way it integrates into society."
Coming full circle
In the two and a half years that have passed since the project began, there have been 180 lectures by flight attendants in almost all of El Al's destinations – Paris, London, Mumbai, Los Angeles and more. The unique initiative is creating a buzz.
The reactions on websites and blogs range from support for the project to strong criticism, depending on the commenter's political opinion of course. There were even those who claimed that the project was actually a secret operation of the Mossad, which was operating agents disguised as flight attendants. In few cases the stewards were also greeted by pro-Palestinian activists who tried to stop the lecture.
For Young, the lecture he gave last week was like coming full circle. He appeared in front of members of the Jewish community in London, where he grew up, and the refreshments for the event were prepared by his mother, who lives there with the rest of his family.
"I spoke at the synagogue in my neighborhood, which I haven’t visited since my bar mitzvah. The reactions were amazing," he says.
Alongside the positive reactions, the project also raises a question of principle: Why are private people sent on a national mission which should be performed by the State?
"We're not going around anyone here, because the Foreign Ministry is involved," says Futterman. "This is a groundbreaking project, because in many places in the world people don't want to hear official ambassadors on behalf of the State. It's easier for people to connect to a personal story of someone like them.
"And yes, there have been cases in which flight attendants lectured to locals and then served them during a flight the next day."