Tag Archives: Study Tours

#JCRCinIsrael 2016

A short while ago, I arrived in Israel. Joined by our trip chair Representative Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead, and by JCRC board members Beth Badik and Ben Pearlman, I am privileged to be leading our annual winter study tour for Massachusetts legislators. Twelve state representatives will be spending the next nine days experiencing Israel and the region while learning about the challenges and hopes of this place that is so near and dear to all of us.

After five winters leading these trips, and having accompanied almost one third of the Massachusetts legislature to Israel during this time, you might think I’d get a bit jaded. And it’s true, I’ve spent more time in churches in Jerusalem than I ever expected to when I lived there as a yeshiva boy. I’ve visited the Dead Sea far more than this ‘once in a lifetime’ experience requires.

Regardless, every trip is unique and special for me on two counts:

First, with each group, I get a fresh chance to see a place I care about so deeply. It’s amazing to encounter Tel Aviv through the lens of someone who is seeing it for the first time. It is always a privilege for me to deepen my own connection to our history when travelling with someone who has never been there before. And, I get to watch firsthand as our participants fall in love with the leaders and activists who’ve inspired and energized me for years.

Second, while every trip examines long-existing challenges and the layers of history in this region, each also presents the opportunity to come face-to-face with a unique moment and get a fresh perspective on how people here are grappling with and talking about the latest developments.

We’ve all been following the terrible fires this past week, especially as they’ve impacted our beloved sister community in Haifa (and if you haven’t already, please join me in supporting CJP’s emergency relief campaign). I’m looking forward to getting back there next week to see and support our friends and to connect our travelers with our long-term partners.

We’re also coming here for the first time since our own elections. And, while I’ve said a lot these past few weeks about what this election means for our domestic priorities, here is the opportunity for all of us on this bus to learn how Israelis and Palestinians are reacting to our outcome. We’ll hear from strategic thinkers with their views on U.S. engagement both in our role as ally to Israel and also as a larger actor in the region. We’ll want to know their take on the shifting U.S.- Russia relationship, their insight regarding Russia’s client regime in Syria – which is also backed by Iran’s regime; and what this all means for Israel just days after an IDF encounter with ISIS in the Golan Heights.

So yes, it has been JCRC’s incredible privilege to bring so many members of the Massachusetts legislature - as well as dozens of other clergy and civic leaders - to Israel over the past five years. I am profoundly grateful to have the opportunity and the donor support that allows us to be here. This experience never fails to energize and inspire me. It will, I am confident, renew and strengthen my own commitment to all that we do both on the ground in Israel and back home in Boston.

I hope over the coming weeks you’ll follow our journey on social media and I look forward to sharing more about our impressions when we return.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

The Path to Peace

I’m just back from two weeks of vacation. I’m grateful to work with a strong team that covers for each other as we take respite. I hope that, in my absence, you appreciated the blog posts from my colleagues.

I’m also still thinking about our study tour in Israel that wrapped up just before my vacation, and one particular visit we made.

Netiv Ha’Asara (The Path of the Ten) is a Moshav (co-operative village) right along the Gaza border. Founded in the Sinai after the 1967 victory,  the families were then evacuated as part of the peace deal with Egypt in 1979. They decided to stay together as a community and re-form their village inside ‘undisputed’ Israel (as our host, Raz, describes it).

Living in the firing line of every hot conflict since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, they have less than  fifteen seconds to find safety when the red alert goes off. Raz shows us the Hamas terror tunnel exit near the greenhouses that had to be blown up during the 2014 conflict. He takes us to the sniper wall, before the border wall, that protects them from Hamas operatives sitting on the other side. We can see the Hamas lookout towers and forward positions, including a new building that appeared overnight a few months ago.

We ask Raz how he helps his children to cope with the reality of living like this, with a bunker in the middle of their playground. He tells his children that it is ugly in Gaza and that what's happening there is awful. He tells them that most people in Gaza didn't vote for Hamas in 2006 and that most Palestinians in Gaza don’t want to kill them. He believes that most people on the other side of the wall share his hopes for a better future.

Raz knows this deep in his gut, since before the withdrawal he was a teenager who played basketball every week with those kids less than half a mile away. And he expresses his fervent hope that those childhood friends are telling their kids the same message about Israelis.

Then Raz takes us PAST the sniper barrier. We’re facing the Gaza border wall some 100 feet in front of us. Behind us on the sniper wall is a glorious piece of ceramic art. It is called Netiv L'Shalom - The Path to Peace. Each ceramic piece, in all their gorgeous colors, is a prayer for with one word: 'Shalom,' or 'Salam,' or 'Peace.'

I’ve fallen in love with these villagers living a crazy, impossible existence under protection from snipers who consider them as 'occupiers' even here (and throughout the entire country, "from the river to the sea"). Because rather than live with the despair of an ugly wall as a monument to violence, they reimagine it as a piece of art, a thing of beauty, and as a prayer for peace - in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.

I love their hopes and dreams. I want them to be able to live without fear, right where they are.

I also leave with a sense of urgency about an additional challenge created by the necessary separation.

I can’t help wondering: What will Raz’s children, who aren’t growing up interacting with kids on the other side of that barrier, someday tell their children if the rockets keep falling and the tunnels keep opening up inside this village? They will not know their peers on the other side of that barrier.

I believe that the better future Raz hopes for is possible. But to build it these people need relationships that foster co-existence. Israelis and Palestinians need to connect with and affirm each other’s humanity. Without that recognition, of national narratives and personal experiences, what happens at a negotiation table can never – on it’s own - end the conflict.

We need to do more to support efforts on the ground that build co-existence. We have to help cultivate conditions that will support a lasting ‘peace.’ We’ve got to invest in those who are building the paths that lead - through understanding, relationships, and shared aspirations – to peace.

May it come soon.

Frustration and Possibility in the Promised Land

I’ve just returned from leading a study tour in Israel for Boston civic leaders. Fifteen of us spent nine days in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Our expectations were challenged. We sought a deeper understanding of the reality beyond the headlines of this place. What we heard and saw frustrated us, but we also found inspiration and possibility.

A settler spokesperson made a compelling argument for the Jewish connection to where she lives. She told us that the time has come for Israel to annex the entirety of the West Bank but she gave no plausible response when asked how such a state can remain both Jewish and democratic. Another Israeli, a human rights activist, offered a compelling case for shining a light on the darker side of Israeli control over Palestinian lives. She, however, declined to answer a question about how to achieve peace. An “irresponsible” response, one participant called it, frustrated.

Frustration carried over to our visit to Ramallah, a place of complexity. People are angry with Israel and this state of occupation, but also with the Palestinian Authority.  We are repeatedly reminded that President Abbas is in his eleventh year of a five year term. Looming over the city is an obscenity, an estimated $13 million presidential palace built this year. One need only look up at this extravagant monument on a hill for a reminder that the Palestinian leadership has abandoned the needs of their people in service to self-aggrandizement. No wonder that Fatah doesn’t want to face the people in municipal elections this October.

Many Israelis also express frustration with their leadership, saying that the national government lacks vision, or plans for the future. From the left and the right they complain about the lack of accountability at the highest levels.

But on a more local level, we also found inspiration. Over and over, people talked about solving problems through local initiatives. “Simple solutions to big challenges” is almost a mantra.

In Lod, a school principal found innovative ways to integrate children of African migrants. In Tira, an Israeli-Palestinian educator started her own supplementary educational systems to prepare Arab girls for successful careers and fully integrated identities as Palestinian citizens in Israel. In the Gush Etzion bloc, Jewish and Palestinian activists are establishing a dialogue through Shorashim (Roots), learning to see each other as people beyond the stereotypes to which they are accustomed. In Jerusalem – to our amazement - a Palestinian, a secular Russian Jew, and a Hasidic Orthodox woman came together over dinner to tell us about the work that they and others are doing – through the ‘Jerusalemite Movement’ - to build a vision of their city as vibrant, pluralistic and inclusive.

I came away with the recognition that we can - and should - do more to support efforts on the ground that address national challenges through simple solutions and that build connectivity amongst Israel’s ‘tribes’ and between Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot impose a two-state solution tomorrow – frankly if someone did, it would not bring a lasting ‘peace.’ But we can – and should - keep the potential for this vision of two states – the only vision that ensures Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state while also ensuring a Palestinian right to self-determination in their own state in a shared homeland - alive by fostering interactions. We can – and should - support those who are working to build trust, who are, despite their qualms with their national leaders, working to keep the door open and build the potential for something better in the future.

May it come soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy