NEW YORK – Sebastián Parra spent most of his college career despising the State of Israel.
He would spend hours scouring the Internet for information, reading articles and watching videos that reinforced his belief that Israelis were “heartless” and hell-bent on stealing “land that didn’t belong to them.”
At university he learned how to demonize the IDF, believing it “killed innocent civilians” and “bombed children indiscriminately in Gaza,” which makes his transformation into one of Israel’s most vocal advocates all the more incredible.
“In short, I use to hate Israel,” Parra told The Jerusalem Post during a recent interview.
Growing up as a Protestant in Colombia, Parra was taught to love Israel, especially at his church. At the same time, the Colombian government was engaged in a bloody civil conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and Parra witnessed daily acts of vicious violence.
“This is precisely why I hated Israel,” he once wrote in a blog post. “My heart ached seeing the images of dead Palestinians and I was even once told by a Jewish professor: ‘Israel treats Palestinians like [FARC] treat[s] your people: without mercy.’ He proved to me that even Jews condemned Israel, so I must’ve been right.”
While attending Georgia State University as an undergraduate, he was given an opportunity to visit Israel through a StandWithUs-sponsored program. He told the Post he was motivated to go because he “wanted to see the apartheid... for myself.”
What he found, however, was a diverse and multicultural society that was being mischaracterized by groups like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that painted the country in a deceitful light.
“I was a victim of confirmation bias,” Parra candidly admitted. “When StandWithUS took us to Israel, my views started to change.”
Now, the 25-year-old is spearheading a Latino outreach program launched by StandWithUS, one of America’s most respected Israel advocacy organizations.
The nonprofit group announced earlier this month that its new Hispanic outreach department is delving into uncharted territory and looking to garner support from the fastest-growing minority population in the United States.
Parra told the Post that the program has a two-pronged approach: offer campus fellowships for Hispanic Christians while providing educational resources to Hispanic churches across North America.
The organization’s Latin American fellowship program “is designed uniquely as a platform for Latino Christian students to voice their support for Israel while also educating their campuses and church communities,” according to a statement from group.
The StandWithUs program includes fellows from both Christian and non-Christian universities that include: Columbia University in New York City; Azusa Pacific and Fullerton College in Los Angeles; Houston Baptist University and the University of Houston in Texas; Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia; and Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I want the Latino Christian community to understand the truth about Israel,” Parra said in a phone call on Tuesday.
Just a little under two years out of college, Parra has now been tasked with leading the Hispanic outreach program, hoping to change hearts and minds.
“It is very important to reach out to the non-Jewish community in order to get our message out to as many people as possible... to just get out there and communicate with people,” he said.
Parra added: “Leading this department is a dream come true for me, if there was something like this when I was in college, maybe I wouldn’t have hated Israel for so long.”
“At a time when the Hispanic population is increasing in America, it is critical that we build bridges to this important community,” Parra said. “Many Hispanics support Israel already and would love to educate their communities. This new program will provide members of this population with the tools, confidence and training they need. Others may not have enough information about Israel to even begin to know how they feel.”
Parra said that the idea was inspired by his own experience, and developed the program with Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs.
Rothstein told the Post she has “great pride” in the initiative and said efforts like the Hispanic Outreach Department are exactly what Israel advocates in America need at the moment.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity, and it’s timely, because the [Hispanic community in America] is a rapidly growing population,” Rothstein said, adding, “This mirrors what StandWithUs has done since its inception.”