Thursday, June 10, 2021

Final Day - Always wanting more

Today is Day 3 of our whirlwind.  Today we travel to Lod and Abu Gosh, both "mixed" cities in Israel with Jewish and Arab communities in large numbers.  This was was the day I was looking forward to from the beginning.  Let me explain why.

As you may know, the scariest thing for most Israelis about the 11 days of open warfare between Israel and Hamas was the rioting that happened inside the mixed cities of Israel proper, like Acco, Lod, Yafo, Haifa and more.  The internal breakdown of civility marked a new event for Israelis of any religious or cultural background, and this new rift is the one that will ultimately determine if Israel is or is not the democracy that we believe it to be. We know how to deal with Hamas' rockets, no matter how traumatic and terrible that entire event was.  The ongoing conflict about what's beyond the 1967 borders is also known.   But the riots - Arab/Jewish or Jewish/Arab - looked like something that could linger, or (God forbid) grow.

Yet, in the 2 weeks since the cease fire, the unheard of finally happened: an Arab party openly joined a coalition to form a government and receive leadership roles.  Mansour Abbas' Islamicist Ra'am party decided that waiting for the West Bank or Gazan Palestinian leaders under the PA or Hamas to produce tangible benefits was no longer worth it.  Ra'am saw that they could topple Netanyahu, gain legitimate political authority and power, and secure massive financial allocations to the Arab population within Israel, so they made the leap.  A desperate Netanyahu had asked Ra'am to join him in a coalition to stay in power just before the war, so all Israel now knew that it was a "legitimate" choice for any other Israeli parties to make the same offer. They did, and the move blew up in Bibi's face. Ra'am joined the opposition in forming the "Government of Change."  This government will be formally sworn in this Sunday.

So this was the day I was waiting for.  I needed to understand why, not how, the riots happened within Israel.  And will it happen again?  Or is an Arab party in the government a ray of hope for Israeli Arabs - perhaps for Israeli democracy as a whole?  And will Arab and Jewish citizens ever be socially, financially and practically equal in Israeli society?


I draw your attention to a chart of Israel's demography.  Note that Jews are the majority in most places, and that Israel is an almost equally split society with Muslims and Christians in the North.  In the West Bank, of course, the story is the reverse.  And Gaza is not a part of the picture because it is outside of Israel or Israeli control completely.  

So, with stunning questions, real fears, and a strange amount of hope, I boarded the bus for Lod.

Lod is in-between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and was always meant to be inside the "Jewish" side of the two-state proposals. This has been the case ever since the League of Nations gave the British custodial sovereignty after the fall of the Ottomon Empire in WWI.  That was a long time ago.  Much has happened since the Armistice line of 1949, but none of it added Lod to Israel.  Lod was always there.

Yet it does have its history of injustice and inequality.  During the War of Independence, Jews fled from Palestinian/Jordanian sovereignty.  Lod remained largely mixed before during and after the war.  And while most Palestinian refugees fled from the war, in the hope that the Arab states would quickly win,  many Palestinians were also forcibly removed from their homes and villages.  This was true in Lod, as clearly documented by Ari Shavit's My Promised Land, which is necessary reading for all.  I believe that there can never be full peace until the full stories of 1948 and 1967 are told, and they are coming out more and more.  Only truth can lead to reconciliation.  And we aren't there yet.  

Yet since 1949, Lod has always been a mixed town with at least three communities, each socioeconomically different from the other.  There is a very large marginalized Arab community.  Education is poor. Employment is scarce. Drugs are rampant. And crime is terrible in that part of the community.  Those neighborhoods are not "mixed." There is also a small, economically self-sufficient Arab community that lives in the other areas - the nicer areas - of town.  And there is the Jewish community of seculars and modern Orthodox who live typical Israeli lives.   Their pre-riot belief was that the last two communities equally believed that a peaceful shared society exists already.  This is the presumption that we came to look at.

We met with a Jewish family who moved to Lod for the multicultural society.  They felt that their prior Jewish neighborhood was stifling and homogeneous.  They wanted to be part of the more complex and interesting Israel.  They moved to Lod, in part, for the Arabs.


We met with a young Arab muslim, wearing western style clothing, who teaches in a Jewish school.  She moved out of the "bad" neighborhood to the "better" neighborhood for safety and for a better life for her and her kids.  She drives her children 45 minutes away from Lod every day to attend a school that teaches them in Arabic, but with a curriculum and quality of teaching that she knows is superior to what is available to them in the Arabic schools in Lod.


The two women, one Jewish and one Muslim, had very different experiences.  The Jewish couple had an aura of shock, even betrayal at what happened on their very street and in their neighborhood.  They showed us pictures of the "triangle of peace" where a church, mosque and synagogue had lived side by side for generations.  The synagogue was gutted by arson in the riot.  The church and mosque were not harmed.  What started with the Sheikh Jarah protests,  escalated with the temple mount conflicts, moved on to the Hamas rockets  and then came to this.  She asked herself if she was naive? Maybe, yet sincere as well, was my impression.

The Jewish couple spoke of  a time when a neighbor asked if they had come to turn the city Jewish.  They were shocked.  They had left the pure Jewish world to live differently.  But from viewpoint of the Arab in Lod, the reaction was an obvious one: outside Jews moving in are seen as a threat.  This is the backdrop for Sheikh Jarrah resonates with.

So it is not surprising that the Arab woman told us how it began with everyone gathering in peaceful solidarity for Sheikh Jarah in the last days of Ramadan.  The story of a Jewish group driving out a Palestinian family from an East Jerusalem neighborhood is powerful for Palestinians and resonates with them no matter where they live.  Even in Lod, where Israelis many believe the shared society is working, they have memories of other families who were driven away from Lod in 1948.  They also have a history of "collaborators" that were settled in Lod, unwelcome in other Palestinian areas.  They have the larger narrative of disadvantage and marginalization within Israeli society.  The woman spoke of trying to buy an apartment in the nice side of town, but being discriminated against by people not wanting to sell to an Arab.  She changed her name and her appearance to "pass" for Jewish, but when they met her husband - more visibly Arab than she - the meetings were cancelled and the deals were off.  Finally she met someone willing to sell and they bought.  "Isn't that illegal?" a member of the American group asked. "Yes." she said simply, with nervous and derisive laughter.

So we came to see the mixed society living peacefully, betrayed by violence and riots.  Both women joined a protest together against the violence.  Both women want the shared society.  But the starting points are very different.  There is, quite simply, gross inequity between them.

I was left wanting more.... but of course it would be ridiculous to expect that I would leave feeling satisfied.  No sane person should be satisfied today.  Not with Israeli Jews.  Not with Israeli Arabs.  Not with the Palestinians.  We are all in conflict inside ourselves, among our peers, and with those who oppose our dreams.  The conflict is real,  and ongoing, so we are all unsatisfied.

Talking with these two women, and trying for a moment to see the world through their eyes, it felt like looking at the universe through a keyhole.  I am not seeing enough. Yet what I do see is true.  And I realize, that is the basis of the misunderstandings about Israel here and in America.  People simply don't know enough, but are talking, yelling, protesting as if they did.

From Lod we went to Abu Gosh, another mixed town. We visited Hinam, an organization bringing together people of different backgrounds to live as groups in each other's communities for lengthy periods of time.  The idea is that you need to know someone, their family, town, food, background and everything in their system and environment before you can ever really know them.  At best it leads to the shared equitable society we all work and pray for.  At worst, if you have conflicts, at least you won't hate each other.  You will have a relationship.  Out of this idea, they have study sessions, community programs and more.... a beautiful idea.  Sadly, as we were there, large forest fires in the area were set by arsonists... and who knows yet why.  How fitting to be sitting in the wake of a war, talking about our hard work and hopes, while smoke and ash was in the air.


Another startling thing happened in the new government coalition.  The Labor party, down to only a handful of seats, has a Reform Rabbi seated in the Kenesset in the new government.  We don't know what portfolio MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv will yet have, but it should be something to do with diaspora affairs and/or Jewish identity.  What a welcome change from the Haredi parties of the last several coalitions who put extreme Orthodox voices in charge of those areas even as the relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel declined on identity topics.  We met with MK Rabbi Kariv in our hotel.

And then... well... dinner and off to the airport.  Home we go, with our minds and our hearts still reeling.  I will speak more about the lessons I learned and my hope for Israel this Shabbat morning, parshat Korach, in synagogue.  I hope you will join me.

Goodbye Jerusalem - back to New Jersey.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Day 2 - Ashkelon, Kibbutz Erez and Tel Aviv.


Today was an early rise at the hotel, with Israeli breakfast... mmmm..... Israeli breakfast.


Jerusalem is relatively quiet these days, with no tourists to speak of.  I went out to buy a paper at 6:30 a.m. and the streets were empty - and the paper wasn't out in the stores yet.  Go figure!

After breakfast, we were off to Ashkelon.  


Ashkelon is one of the fastest growing cities in Israel.  Once a sleepy beachside town, it is soon to cross the 200,000 residents mark.  

 trains and cranes being built everywhere.

This is all the more remarkable, as it is the so very close to Gaza and was the recipient of hundreds of missile warnings a day as Hamas continued to rain terror indiscriminately at the civilian population in the last three weeks.  There is no military base or airfield in or near Ashkelon: just Israelis living in their homes ever since the 1949 armistice lines.  

We visited with Duvid, a pioneer settler of Jewish Ashkelon and a veteran of 5 wars.   He was born in 1936 in Tel Aviv, and moved to Ashkelon as bus driver after the war for independence in 1949.  His 80 year old neighbor's home across the street, and 4 other homes in his neighborhood, were all directly hit by Hamas missiles in the recent fighting.



His life was saved only because he had built in his home a "safe room" or bomb shelter to hide in when they heard the air-raid warning sirens.  He had 30 seconds to get to the room.  Imagine if you had children, or elderly or bed-ridden family.  What choice would you have to make in those 30 seconds?  The whole neighborhood was in the crosshairs of people with missile launchers as the homes played a deadly game of Russian roulette.

Down the street we met with a woman whose home took a direct hit with her son in it.  Shocked and with ear damage from the concussion, he miraculously survived.  Imagine running to your front door and trying to open it, only to have it blocked by debris and rubble of what used to be everything you owned.


Removing the rubble of her home.

I recognize and empathize with the people of Gaza who suffered from Israel's retaliations and strikes against Hamas' ability to make war.  War is terrible and civilian lives lost are terrible.  But it all started when Hamas launched rockets, and it all ended when Hamas stopped firing rockets.

So how do Israelis live, so near the border with Gaza?  The truth is, they bond resiliently. And they are cared for and supported by all of us.  

There is of course also the Iron Dome.

Scattered about, these anti-missile missiles proved to be 90% effective in stopping the over 4000 missiles shot by Hamas at Israeli towns during the past 3 weeks.  Sadly that means 400+ missiles could not be stopped.  Imagine Toronto doing that to Buffalo, or Tijuana doing that to San Diego.  This is no different.

But the second secret lies not only in Ashkelon, but even closer to Gaza in a Kibbutz called Erez, and many others like it.  


The top of the picture in the distance is Gaza.  The trees and homes on the bottom are in the Kibbutz.  Here they have just 8 seconds' warning to get to a bomb shelter.  What would you do with your kids in 8 seconds?

Yet dozens of new families have signed up to live here, in what is a truly close and idyllic setting.  They have agriculture, gardens, schools and nature all around them.  And if there isn't a war, it is a paradise.  Why do you live here, I asked one mom.  She answered, "to show them that we can live here peacefully."

And of course, their hospitality was delicious.

Kibbutz Erez, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv.  

These are not places that are in dispute, unless you think that the entire State of Israel should not exist. 

 When Hamas grabbed the Sheikh Jarah and Temple Mount conflicts out of the hands of the East Jerusalem protesters by shooting missiles, they moved from "protesting occupation and annexation" to "military attacks on all of Israel."  

Every voice for Palestinian independence and social justice in their name must make a choice:  Are you seeking to destroy Israel, or are you seeking a peaceful Palestinian state next to Israel?  You really do have to understand that difference, or you understand nothing of the conflict, its potential solution, and the concept of human rights in the region. Hamas is not your brother/sister in your pursuit of justice.

  Gaza, right behind me.

So let's be clear, as we continue to identify the four very different Palestinian groups in and around Israel:

  1. There are many Israeli Arab Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel.  They are full citizens, equal to any Jewish citizen.  Ashkelon is in this category.  Anyone who has a problem with Ashkelon being a part of Israel is simply historically wrong as a point of justice.  They support the violent and murderous attacks against the 8 million Israelis - both Arab and Jewish - who live peaceful daily lives in the State of Israel.  
  2. There are many Arab Palestinians living in "East Jerusalem" or "Greater Jerusalem."  Israel has formally annexed those areas, and most Palestinians refute the legality of that action.  While the vast majority of Israelis disagree, that is a legitimate political dispute, and must be accounted for in any final peace agreement.  But with annexation Israel has offered, and most Palestinians have refused Israeli citizenship. Most chose "permanent resident status" instead, which allows them all rights and services of the government, except the right to vote in Israel's elections.  As a result, they live without equal rights.  The "Sheikh Jarah" neighborhood falls into this category.  This is a primary point of conflict, which has continued to mystify would-be peacemakers for decades.  But there are no barriers or roadblocks in East Jerusalem.  Residents move freely in and out of the rest of Israel and can pursue a living openly.  
  3. Most Palestinians live in the West Bank - the land administered by Jordan from 1948 to 1967, meant to be turned over to the Palestinian Authority as areas "A, B, or C" in the Oslo accords by Israel.  There they have self-autonomy for internal governance, but limits on travel, building, or military development. Israel has not annexed this area, but has significant towns and cities (like Ma'alei Adumim and Gush Etzion) developed around much of the West Bank, separate from and generally not interacting with the Palestinian towns, villages and cities such Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho and Hebron).  The Palestinian Authority rules these areas without elections.  Peace offers for "land swaps" often try to add up the land in these settlements, and add that much land back to the proposed Palestinian state to avoid "population transfers" like what happened in Pakistan/India and elsewhere.  These offers have been historically supported by the US and rejected by the Palestinians.  "Settlements" are in this area, not "Israel proper."
  4. Then there are the Palestinians in Gaza.  This population has increased 5x+ since 1949, and the territory does not support the population of almost 2,000,000 people economically.  The majority of this population are descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1949.  Due to security concerns, Israel and Egypt keep the border crossing closed except for humanitarian needs.  Hamas rules this area without elections.

.... Once we finished at Kibbutz Erez, it was back to Tel Aviv.  Our meeting with a Kenesset member was cancelled because of a crisis (when isn't there a crisis here?), so we took a tour of the completely re-done Museum "Anu" - formerly known as Beit HaTefutzot, or "The Diaspora Museum."  This museum, very tech savy and interactive, tells the story of Jewish history outside the Land of Israel.  Since that is several thousand years, it is understandably shallow, but generally well-done.  Highly recommended.

And finally... back to Jerusalem after a late dinner (sorry, no pictures) and off to bed.  Why or why didn't I bring my swimsuit this time?