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.