Tag Archives: Boston Partners for Peace

Wisdom from our partners in Israel

Capture

With my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society.

Yesterday I returned from 10 days of travel in Israel, made possible thanks to a CJP solidarity mission last week. I was privileged to participate and grateful that I could extend my time – when so few are fortunate enough to be able to travel – visiting with many of our partners; the groups we work with through Boston Partners for Peace and our connection to the Alliance for Middle East Peace, our on-the-ground partners who we work with on Study Tours, and the many thinkers and doers who educate and inspire us.  

I came with a desire to support our friends and partners, and also to search for inspiration and wisdom to inform our own commitment to the challenging work of bridging differences and supporting the hard conversations and initiatives that build shared society and cross-border connections. I wanted to hear how they have navigated COVID, how they make sense of the events in May, what their perceptions are of Israel’s new coalition government, and perhaps most important, what they are thinking about the road ahead.  

Amidst numerous rich and informative conversations, some topics and themes came up repeatedly. Folks were eager to talk about the recent Jewish Electorate Institute poll indicating increasingly harsh criticism of Israel by growing numbers of Jewish Americans. The people I met with weren’t terribly interested in talking about regional issues, both positive (normalization with various states) or threats (e.g. Iran). What was most on their minds seemed to be the challenges to the social fabric of society here, whether that was – depending on the meeting – between Jewish Israelis, all Israeli citizens, or all the people living in Israel and the Palestinian Areas. 

I heard a degree of optimism about the new government from people we’ve been working with. For Hamutal Gouri – a leader in Women Wage Peace - there is inherent opportunity in the fact that folks who had not been in decision-making rooms until now, are newly "in the room where it happens” (to paraphrase her), including many of Gouri’s allies in the feminist movement. At the same time, leaders are grappling with the brokenness of political and civil discourse; Rachel Azaria – a former Member of Knesset and Jerusalem deputy mayor who has, for now, left electoral politics – is working to develop a new language of civic and political discourse; the rhetoric she experienced in her time in the Knesset (where half the country calls the other traitor, and, the other half call their opponents, fascist) wasn’t helping solve problems and is actually dangerous. I also met with leaders who are doing the hard work of being in conversation and relationship with religious extremists, including radical nationalists in the Jewish and Muslim communities, because it is, to their mind, the extremists who need to be reached in service to progress, not the liberals who already embrace openness and dialogue. 

Two voices are staying with me. The first is my friend and teacher Mohammad Darawshe, of the Givat Haviva Center for Equality and Shared Society, who met with the CJP group. He’s done a lot of thinking over the years about building a common society for all of Israel’s citizens, and about the role of diaspora Jews as a third stakeholder with Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the future of the country. One point he underscores repeatedly, is that productive intergroup dialogue and shared identity work is possible only when one first comes in with a strong sense of personal and group identity. In his work, Jews and Palestinians are encouraged to develop and strengthen their own narratives and identities in order to facilitate the work of hearing the stories of others, without being threatened by them. 

The second voice is Shivi Froman, a new relationship for me. The son of Rabbi Menachem Froman (of blessed memory), he lives in Tekoa, a Jewish community beyond the Green Line. As I sat with him in his living room, he told me about his work with Roots/Shorashim/Judur and with Syrian refugees (that led to him addressing the UN in New York a few years ago), but mostly about his ethos on extremists and moderates in his communities.  

Shivi tells me about a teaching his father liked to share, an idea from the kabbalistic tradition that asks why we need two ears, two eyes, and two arms. The teaching goes that the left side is to hold the personal space – he puts out a stiff-arm with a palm out like a stop sign – the space of protection and defense of self. The right side – and here he hugs himself with one arm – is to draw close, to see and hear the other and to embrace them fully as they are. Shivi embraces his father’s wisdom that one needs both sides in balance. He compares this to a bird flying with only one wing or someone paddling a boat only on one side.  The bird and the sailor would perceive themselves as moving forward when in fact they would be moving in circles and not making any progress. One has to do both – protect the self and embrace the other – in equal measures, or one isn’t achieving anything lasting. 

There is wisdom here from Mohammad, from Shivi, and from all the others I’ve been meeting with, about how to have courageous conversations and to challenge oneself to be in difficult relationships across differences. There is also wisdom here regarding the challenges we face as a Jewish community in America, in our own identities, in our conversations with each other, and in our work with others – including those who are extremists in their own ways. In order to do effective relationship work, we must first fully develop our own identities and narratives, and we also must ensure that we are balancing both our defense and willingness to be open.  

I come away, as always, from my time in this place I love, inspired and challenged by the people I meet and care about, committed even more so to their work, to our work supporting them, and to what we can learn from their leadership. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

On the other side of the wall

This past week I sat down, separately, with two of our partners in Israel, Mohammad Darawshe and Raz Shmilovich. We had asked each of them to join us to share their experiences, as an Arab and a Jew, and as Israelis, during these recent, difficult weeks. How, we wondered, do they and their neighbors think about the tensions of recent events?

Mohammad Darawshe is the Director of Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva. We’ve met with him often over the years, both in Israel and here in Boston, to talk about his work, building a shared society for all of Israel’s citizens. In recent weeks he and his family have experienced harassment and danger, even to the point of Mohammad having to hide his Arab  identity from Jewish extremists in Afulah, and his children facing racist comments at school and work.

Raz Shmilovich lives in Moshav Netiv Ha’Asara. A farming community, this is the closest Israeli village to the Gaza strip, where we visit regularly to talk with him and his neighbors. Even during relative calm, their lives can be unimaginable to us. Bomb shelters are everywhere, but even during the best circumstances, residents only have 5 seconds to reach a shelter once a mortar is fired. We’ve seen where terrorists dug a tunnel under the wall and came out amidst their greenhouses, along with the ongoing efforts to protect the residents by building an anti-tunnel barrier outside their homes.

My conversations with them reminded me of a much-commented upon event in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach. This portion tells the story of the spies, sent from the wilderness to scout the land of Canaan. Famously, when they return to the Israelite camp, they make a report:

“The people who inhabit the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified… more over we saw Anakites (giants) there.”  Numbers 13:28

Their report evokes fear in the Israelite camp. And yet, some forty years later, in the time of Joshua, in a story we also read this shabbat, we learn that the Canaanites of this story were afraid of the Israelites as well. In Jericho, a Canaanite woman, Rahab, tells a new generation of Israelite spies that “dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking.” (Joshua 2:9)

The medieval scholar Rashi, in his commentary on our Torah portion, looks at these two moments and explains that “the higher the walls, the more fearful the people.”

I asked Raz what he is telling his children right now. He said he tells them about the need for Palestinians and Israelis to actually live together “two or three generations living one by each other, next to the other, we would learn not to fear.” He grew up with open fields and roads, riding his bike in Gaza to markets and playing basketball with Palestinian friends, a human experience his children have never been able to share. Raz appreciates the full humanity of the parents on the other side of the wall. But this is not an experience his children have ever known. “When my kids come to me… happy for someone being killed, that’s a wake-up call for me. I don’t want anyone to die. But for them, Gaza is like an entity.” He tells them about a kid, Ahmed, on the other side of the wall, in Gaza, who goes to bed afraid. “He doesn’t have a bomb shelter to go to. He doesn’t have a school to go to.” And Raz hopes that Ahmed’s father is telling him the same story about Raz’s children, who also live in fear.

I asked Mohammad about the fear that he and his family have experienced and what he, as a long-time co-existence advocate, says to his own grown children right now. He tells them that people are living in the heat and anger of the moment, and trying to exercise power – even if they don’t have it – to cause damage. He tells his children to reach out to their friends, including their Jewish friends, just to say hello. He’s initiated 100 calls in the past week with Jewish friends to say that “just because there’s a meltdown out there, we don’t have to be part of it. It doesn’t mean we have to disconnect from our hope for partnership… The duty to get out of the problem, is for each individual to pick up the phone and say… lets have coffee, let’s sit and talk.”

Now, there are times when security needs require protective walls. Security barriers have successfully reduced violence, here and elsewhere. But the wisdom in Raz and Mohammad’s words, and their implicit response to Rashi’s message, is that when we build walls - literal and metaphorical – even for all the right reasons, they can also close off the social interactions that can reduce fears. Walls limit our ability to see and hear other people as human beings, with full lives, dreams and hopes, and fears.

What Raz, Mohammad, and so many of our friends on the ground are doing is refusing to be defined by their own fears and fears that others may have of them. They are teaching their children first-hand how to reach out and to connect. They may (or may not) see some walls as necessary at some times, but they also believe there must always be a door to the other side.

There are people on the ground who are doing the necessary work of peace, of creating and opening these doors, like so many of the organizations we support through our Boston Partners for Peace initiative. This week we have an opportunity to support their critical work. Please join me in signing this letter from the Alliance for Middle East Peace to the Biden Administration, encouraging them to support the International Fund for Peace at the upcoming G7. This funding will ensure that peacebuilding organizations such as Givat Haviva and the others featured on our Boston Partners for Peace platform will have the resources they need to transform their communities.

I look forward to seeing you at further conversations with our partner organizations, and I encourage you to read about them on the Boston Partners for Peace website.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Building a Coalition for Peace

Photo from one of Boston Partners for Peace's partner organizations, Roots-Shorashim-Judur

This week, a joint message from Executive Director Jeremy Burton and Director of Israel Engagement Eli Cohn-Postell:

In the two weeks since President Trump released his administration’s framework for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, reactions have exposed the pre-existing divides in our discourse about the region and about the way forward. This may be unintended, but it is certainly unsurprising, as a consequence of this latest round of attention to the conflict.

Here at JCRC, we did not wake up the morning after the plan was released wondering about our role in this complicated historical moment. For years, we have been helping to lift up grassroots peacebuilders through our Boston Partners for Peace initiative. Today we are going public with endorsements from a broad coalition of religious, political, and civic leaders throughout Massachusetts. This is the beginning of a new phase of our work to validate and support the inspirational work of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders; building upon the multi-year investment by JCRC in engagement through travel by civic leaders to the region and programming here at home.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a complex and divisive issue. The information we receive through traditional media channels is limited, and often distorted. Many times, we find ourselves in difficult conversations with our non-Jewish partners about how we understand and sit with these multi-layered issues. These conversations also take place in challenging intracommunal discussions such as with our Council, representing a broad diversity of views within our community. We at JCRC sit at the center of this complexity, as people who are inspired by the Israel we know and love, and also not looking away from its imperfections and its challenges, including in its relationship with the Palestinians.

This public statement of support for grassroots peacebuilding gives credence to our approach to engaging with hope for the future of this region. With over 60 leaders (and counting!) lending their names in support of Boston Partners for Peace, we are hearing from elected officials from across the Commonwealth, rabbis of every denomination, a diverse group of Christian clergy members, and other civic leaders. The vast majority are alumni of our Study Tour program, which introduces Boston’s civic leadership to the intricacies of Israel and to Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders who are working to build trust and mutual recognition across real and metaphorical boundaries. As Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn put it when meeting with representatives from the Hand in Hand schools last fall, these interactions “make us a better city and a more effective city council.”

But, more than anything, this action speaks volumes about the work of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders. They are following in the footsteps of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, armed with the knowledge that building peace between individuals is a necessary condition for building peace between societies. Their jobs seem to get more difficult all the time. Yet they continue to serve as a common source of inspiration. In a time when many of us cannot agree on the future direction of Israel or our own role in this process, we can agree on this: Israelis and Palestinians coming together at the grassroots level provide us with hope, inspiration, and optimism about the future.

Through Boston Partners for Peace, we are now running regular programs and reaching hundreds of people here in Massachusetts. People from many communities are coming together to hear from peacebuilders and apply best practices from their efforts to our own challenges here in the United States. As our Boston Partners for Peace community continues to grow we look forward to placing down new markers like this one, indications that we are building a coalition of people coming together to say, “Yes—we support you, yes—we support peace, and yes—we want to take our next steps together.”

We invite you to join them in supporting Boston Partners for Peace and the work of peacebuilding.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy and Eli

Building a Shared Future in Israel

Givat Haviva International School in brings together Arab and Jewish students.

This week, we had the pleasure of hosting Mohammad Darawshe, Director of the Center for Equality and Shared Society of the Givat Haviva institute (a Boston Partners for Peace organization), here in Boston.

Mohammad’s story is not a particularly unusual one amongst Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, but the actions that come from his story need to become far more common. His family has lived in his village in the Galilee for 28 generations. He is an acute observer of the Palestinian Israeli experience. He usually begins his talk by describing the challenges that Arab citizens face in integrating into Israeli society. One key factor is the relationship between the Israeli government and its citizens; in this case the relationship between Israel as a Jewish state and its 20% non-Jewish minority. Mohammad’s contention is that Israel’s self-definition as a state for Jews – codified in last summer’s nation-state law – rather than a state of all its citizens, results in discrimination against him and his community.

The other piece of the puzzle has to do with relations between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. This is where Givat Haviva is laser-focused, running a variety of programs that aim to create equality and a shared future for Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We visit there regularly with our JCRC Israel Study Tours.

In one session this week, Mohammad was asked how social progress can really be made given the political obstacles to peace. He answered that while there is a certain aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he will never be able to control, he is convinced that his work at Givat Haviva constitutes 90% of the solution.

This got us thinking: what if we spent more of our time learning about and emphasizing solutions, rather than fixating on problems beyond our control?

Mohammad tells us about a program that places Jewish teachers in Arab schools and vice versa. This program is designed to reduce racism among Israeli youth, and the results have been dramatic. Israeli researchers have found that roughly 60% of Jewish and Arab youth in Israel hold at least some racist tendencies toward the other. After only two years with a teacher from a different background, that rate drops to 10%. This program is currently running in about 1,200 of Israel’s 7,000 schools. This is what Mohammad would call an “island of success,” undeniable progress, but with much more work to be done.

“There is a pill against racism and that pill is the presence of ‘the Other’ in your life,” Mohammad tells us.

Givat Haviva is breaking down the separations that prevent productive conversations from taking place. Their team is working on creating better relationships between Jews and Palestinians as citizens of one country, while also working on achieving full equality for Palestinians at the same time.

Simply put, Mohammad is working for an Israel that fulfills the promise and aspiration of its own declaration of statehood, to be a “country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Thinking about solutions 90% of the time is hard, but if we never hear about solutions, then we are only left with the seemingly insurmountable challenges.  And if, by focusing on a solutions-oriented approach toward solving the 90% of challenges, groups like Givat Haviva create the conditions on the ground that expand the possibility to address the other 10% (the political challenges), all the better.

At JCRC, and through Boston Partners for Peace, we are committed to changing the current dynamic by emphasizing grassroots peacebuilding work. There are aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we cannot solve, nor is it our place to solve them. Instead, we make the choice to turn to and be inspired by Mohammad and the thousands like him working every day for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

We hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli & Jeremy

Eli Cohn-Postell

Eli Cohn-Postell
Director of Israel Engagement

Jeremy Burton, Executive Director

Jeremy Burton
Executive Director

Israeli & Palestinian Women Leading the Charge for Peace

I spent last week in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah as a facilitator for Encounter, following my experience as a participant last year. This time, my role was to support other American Jewish leaders who were there to listen and learn from Palestinians about their lives and experiences. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days touring in Jerusalem, with the ground partners we work with on our civic leader study tours, exploring new (to us) ways to engage.

Three “moments” that I would not have imagined possible only a few years ago have stuck with me as I returned home. They feature extraordinary women representing vastly different communities, but pursuing common goals with relentless determination and unimaginable courage.

With JCRC’s ground partners on Mount Zion, just outside the Old City walls, at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, I learn about current efforts by Palestinian Jerusalemite women (the vast majority of whom are not citizens of Israel) to organize and agitate for basic municipal services. Since they refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty, this community has been engaging in a 50-year-long boycott of municipal elections. One result has been their lack of representation at City Hall, leading to, among other things, chronic problems with services like street-light repair and garbage pickup. For decades, these issues were taken up by the clan leaders, the men in their communities – to little effect. But in recent years, the women have taken matters into their own hands, organizing, and even building coalitions with Orthodox and secular women in Jewish communities of the city. Their efforts are bearing fruit, including increases in budgets for services that are improving the quality of life  in their communities. Women, we are told, are getting the job done.

In Geula, a Haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem – a place I knew well when I was a black-hat yeshiva student living in that city in the 1980’s – a Hasidic woman leads us on a professional walking tour. She tells us about her own journey from 18-year-old married mother to a later-in-life college degree and profession. She engages us in an open and profoundly candid conversation – one I would never have imagined having with a woman from this community even 10 years ago – about social change and social issues in her community; women’s health education including birth control, LGBT issues, debates over higher education, etc. My friend asks her if she will have any issues walking on the streets with obviously outsider men (let alone any man other than her husband). “Things are changing. My neighbors understand the importance of what I am doing. This corner is fine,” she replies.

Then in Bethlehem, now having joined the Encounter group, I meet a Muslim woman who is involved in Women Wage Peace – a group of Israeli and Palestinian women working through non-violent means to build grassroots pressure on the political leadership in support of peace. This woman (names are protected because not all the people I met were on the record) tells us about her own journey and her determined efforts to teach her neighbors and youth in her community to see The Other – the Israeli, the Jew – as fully human, and to appreciate the feelings they have, that are common to us all.

She has brought her teenage son with her to this meeting with American Jewish leaders. He sits quietly next to her. At one point, as she tells her story, she talks about the first intifada in the 1980’s, when she was in college and I was a post-high school yeshiva student just down the road in Jerusalem. She did what all her classmates did: threw stones at the Jews. Jews like me, a mile away, I think to myself. And, as she tells this story, she reaches out and gently places her left hand on her son’s knee; only for a moment, while talking about her own violent past. And she doesn’t touch him again for the hour we are together.

I feel the message in that moment and in this boy’s presence in the room: She’s telling this story as a mistake she prays he does not repeat. She’s brought him here to see that her choice, to pursue non-violence as a practice, is a better one, and one that opens up doors of access to her, that brings her voice and vision before us visitors. It is a choice that needs validation and support. And over our time in Palestinian areas, we hear other activists who practice non-violence tell us that they need “wins.” Victories to show their neighbors that their approach works, that violence is not the path to a better future.

I come away appreciating that change is possible and continuing to happen. But that change never happens on its own. It takes bold vision and profound courage. And it needs our support; to amplify the visibility of activists, to celebrate and give strength to those pursuing non-violent social change. I’m proud that Women Wage Peace is one of the initial participants in the Boston Partners for Peace, our effort to amplify and connect with changemakers on the ground who are bridging the Israeli and Palestinian communities and paving the way to a better future.

We can have an impact in supporting the future of this place that continues to evolve before our eyes – only if we take the time to listen, to learn, to be inspired. But we must also act now, for we know that this possibility can be fleeting, and nothing is guaranteed to last forever. The question I ask myself is: What will these neighborhoods and communities will look like in another ten years, and how can our community be a part of cementing their progress long into the future?

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy