I hear that many people are giving up on Israel these days. The violence seems unending. The occupation of the West Bank is almost 50 years old. Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union has just said that, while he’s dedicated to the goal in the long term, two states is not achievable in this moment. Hatred, racism, violence, and intimidation seem to be at an all-time high.
I’ve just returned from my second trip to Israel in five weeks. And what I found there was dramatically different than the headlines. I encountered a vibrant society in full swing. I found inspiring undercurrents in the culture and public life that give me great hope for the years to come.
Take, for example, Shaharit, an NGO dedicated to developing leaders from every sector of Israeli society – Haredi, Mizrachi, Russian, Arab, Ethiopian, National Religious – who are willing and able to turn toward the “other” to listen and understand. Take the Arab Jewish Community Center in Jaffa or the Yad b’Yad schools, which are dedicated to building and deepening relationships between Jews and Arabs, to healing hatred, and to educating the next generation to seek connection with one another. Take Yifat Thareani, of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who is documenting the multicultural realities of the Iron Age II (8th-9th centuries BCE) in Israel, in which different peoples (Assyrian, Edomite, Bedouin, Judean) lived side by side. Never were we in a homogeneous society, she demonstrates, and in fact our success was predicated upon cooperation across cultural and linguistic differences. Thareani compares this history to the scout troop she has organized in South Tel Aviv with children from more than 40 countries.
Last Wednesday, the 330 Reform rabbis who gathered in Jerusalem for our Central Conference of American Rabbis convention were hosted by a special meeting of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. No fewer than fifteen Knesset members from seven political parties came to speak about diversity, religious pluralism, and democratic values. The next day, 150 of Reform rabbis rose early to pray at the newly designated egalitarian section of the Western Wall, women and men conducting a Torah service together.
In these two visits, I’ve met Israelis facilitating relationships between Bedouin and Kibbutz children at the border of the Gaza Strip, a mayor of a town in the Negev winning big victories for affordable housing, young people working for civil marriage. I’ve learned that labor unions are experiencing dramatic growth, and that these unions are all completely integrated, with Arabs and Jews working and mobilizing together. I’ve met a labor organizer who sees in these growing, integrated unions an opportunity to remake the electorate by building a progressive wing among these workers.
I ended my second trip with Seeds of Peace Director Leslie Lewin, a member of CBE, who introduced me to the incredible Israeli and Palestinian leaders who have come of age through that groundbreaking camp and organization. The oldest among them are now in their mid-30s, and they are stepping into roles of power and influence within both Israeli and Palestinian society. In addition to meeting with Israelis in Tel Aviv, we traveled to Jericho together to meet with dozens of Palestinian educators dedicated to healing hatred and teaching the inner work of peacebuilding.
As Americans, we sometimes feel that we have no place in building the Israel that ought to be. These two recent visits taught me that American Jews do not have the luxury of sitting by and watching as Israelis and Palestinians do the important work of social transformation. They need us, and we need them. Israel is the Jewish people’s great experiment in self-governance and self-determination. Israelis are our family. Israel speaks for all of the Jewish people. It is therefore our right and obligation to work together with our Israeli sisters and brothers to ensure that Israel speaks and acts on the highest Jewish values. I see Israelis at the grassroots who are ready and willing to partner with us to amplify their message and achieve our shared agenda of justice and peace.