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Hasbara program boosts UA student’s passion for Israel

University of Arizona freshman Molly Katz Simon was the only Arizonan selected to participate in Hasbara Fellowships’ activism training program in Israel over winter break. One of 80 American students who spent more than two weeks traveling through Israel, meeting with leaders in business, politics, religion and social activism, she returned to Tucson eager to share her energy and pro-Israel passion with other students.

University of Arizona freshman Molly Katz Simon, right, with University of Texas at Austin student Tracy Frydberg, in Jerusalem. (Jeni Willenzik)

Simon discovered the Hasbara Fellowships program while researching Israel programs. Having already been to Israel with the March of the Living program, BBYO’s International Leadership Seminar in Israel and twice with her family, she sought to encounter Israelis with as many views as possible, so that she’d come away with a better understanding of Israel’s challenges.

“I’ve always been passionate about the issues facing Israel,” she said. Simon is concerned about the way the Arab-Israeli conflict is portrayed in the media. “Sometimes Israel is held to a higher standard, so much so that it makes Israel seem like the Goliath. It’s not so black-and-white. I would like to see Israel more fairly represented.”

Simon says the Hasbara program gave her the tools and information to pursue her goal of building a more balanced perception of Israel through education and activism. “It gave me the skills to be a better leader.”

She brought her experience back to campus with the intent of increasing outreach and interest in Bear Down for Israel, a cultural club run by Jewish Arizonans on Campus, and CatPAC: Wildcats for Israel, a pro-Israel organization affiliated with the UA Hillel Foundation. Through CatPAC, Simon is already involved in educating student leaders about Israel. In March she went to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington with the CatPAC delegation.

Hasbara Fellowships was founded in 2001 by Aish HaTorah International to train university students as pro-Israel activists prepared to counteract anti-Israel messages on campus. Over 2,500 students have participated in the Hasbara Fellowships’ activism training program. Simon was selected for the winter program from among more than 300 applicants, including two others from Arizona. Students were chosen based on demonstrated leadership and commitment to Israel advocacy, interviews and personal recommendations.

“Molly already demonstrated a firm commitment to and enthusiasm for Israel activism,” said Natalie Menaged, Hasbara Fellowships director of education. “She was looking for exactly the education and training we seek to provide, and was committed to increasing her involvement upon returning to campus.”

The participants traveled to Israel in two groups of 40 over winter break. Simon was in the second group, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 10. On their second day, they met with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to discuss threats to Israel in the region. Later in the program, they heard the Palestinian perspective from Bassem Eid, director of Palestinian Human Rights Monitor.

The highlight for Simon was “meeting activists from all over the country who care about the things that I care about, who are interested in learning more and having these intense discussions.”

Simon, 18, is fascinated by politics in general, and internal Israeli politics in particular. She wants to learn more about how the government works, the different political parties and who is in power.

She grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Rockville, Md., with strong ties to Israel. Both of her parents — and their parents — had spent time living and working in Israel. That personal connection, together with her education at the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington, D.C., shaped her attitude toward Israel. She is pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in the philosophy, politics, economics and law program, and plans to minor in Middle Eastern studies.

Simon sees her future in Israel activism. “I hope to base a career off of it, to help educate and influence the pro-Israel community,” she said.

For more information about the Hasbara Fellowships, visit hasbarafellow

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at