Reflections on My Seven Months in Israel
To my friends and family,
Our seven-month sabbatical in Israel is drawing to a close, and instead of composing an Op-Ed piece for mass publication, I am writing to you. I am extremely fearful for Israel's future, but I don't believe saying this in the mass-media will motivate anyone to do anything except nod or shake their head. My hope is you will be inspired to take action if someone you know personally - and hopefully trust - shares with you what I have seen, heard, and experienced.
I love Israel: I have been here nearly 50 times, I speak Hebrew, I have Israeli family and close friends. I am certain that the Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my lifetime if a diplomatic solution - ending the occupation and creating two states for two peoples - does not happen. This war has only strengthened my certainty that Israel cannot survive if it maintains the occupation.
There. I have said it. The Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my own lifetime.
As I heard someone say this spring, "It will be a trauma for the Jewish people like the destruction of the Second Temple." This will happen in our lifetime to all of us - Jews in Israel and America - if we don't act in whatever capacity we can. Starting now. Urgently.
Why am I writing about the occupation now, when bombs are falling on Israel and Gaza, when more than 1800 Palestinians are dead and 64 Israeli soldiers? The war has everyone I know, including me, tense and incredibly sad. Why don't I tell you about how I cried last Shabbat at shul when a father with his three young children asked for an aliyah and a blessing because he was home from Gaza for Shabbat with his family. and tonight I wonder if he is home again? Or maybe I should tell you about Ruhama, the always-smiling nursery school teacher that taught two of our children, whose son was killed in Gaza this week?
How can I best explain this to you? I have tried to write this letter again and again. But I always stop writing. My excuses: I have too much to share, for I have spent hours these past months - and especially weeks - discussing "the situation" and it is difficult to write. It is depressing. I fear only a handful of you will heed my pleas. I want to go swimming. I need to take a dress to be fixed. You can read almost everything I am going to say in others' words, day after day in Israeli and American publications. Why do I need to write to you?
I need to write to you because I need to do more to insure Israel's future and the future of a Jewish people and Judaism that my children and grandchildren will want to engage with. I am compelled to do this because Israel is an amazing country. A miracle of development: there are roads, hospitals, culture and technology, all of which I have been blessed to enjoy these months. A religious mecca, I have been able to attend remarkable progressive shuls - from Orthodox, Reform, Renewal, and self-described "Israeli" -- all within blocks of our home. I have prayed with my friend, a nun, at her convent. I have cooked food with a Druze woman and asked her about her beliefs. I have discussed faith with a Muslim friend. I channel my grandfather when I take vast pleasure in reading signs in Hebrew and I marvel at the fact that political discussions - from far left to far right - take place in this language. In these seven months our family has slept in the desert in the rain, stood silent for two minutes as movement came to a halt on Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day), and explored a land - and its playgrounds - that generations before us only dreamed about. Most of all though, I have been with striving and loving people who want a better life for themselves, their neighbors, and their children.
Thus, one of the things I am doing is writing to everyone whom I know well-enough to have their email address - even if I normally would leave out people because "I don't know them well" or "I think they might disagree with me" or "because I ask them for money for another cause" (especially if I ask you for money for another cause). I am asking you to read this letter, feel the urgency, think about where you stand, and if you are open to even a piece of what I have to say, to do something to help bring about a diplomatic solution to end the inevitable escalation by extremists on both sides, and war every few years.
I said to one of my sisters the other day, "Bottom line, the draft of my letter is too long." She asked, "What do you really want to say?" My best analogy is this: when I read about dati (religious) Jews who are arrested for stealing, I don't get it. What is the point of their Judaism?
I am afraid that if Israel continues to oppress another people with no end in sight, refuses to agree to a diplomatic solution and allows racist, Messianic, Israeli nationalism to set the county's course, then Israel's soul, its people - and its existence as a democratic country - are in grave danger. And Jews throughout the world will ask "What is the point of Judaism if this is the behavior of a Jewish country?" All the money in the world spent on Jewish education won't matter because many, many Jews won't want to be part of the Jewish people any more.
You can now skip to the actions I recommend or read my observations from the past seven months:
The overwhelming majority of Israelis I talk with feel hopeless about the political situation. On a good day a minority of them feel "almost hopeless." (My Hebrew, although not as well-accented as my kids', is good enough to have a conversation with any Hebrew speaker I meet.) Israeli Jews know that there must be radical change if Israel is to continue to exist as a democratic country - or perhaps as a country at all - but it is emotionally difficult to think about - let alone know what to do and even more so, to act upon for many people here. As one friend said to me, "I don't know how to bring about what I hope for given this government and the political situation. so I feel helpless as well."
I recently began telling people who solicit my support for Jewish education and social service projects here that I appreciate what they are doing, but I am putting my tzedakah money into ending the occupation. Everyone who has responded has said something like this email: "Thanks Sally for your quick e mail and for what you do for Am Yisrael. I must confess that I do understand and agree that ending the occupation is the MOST important thing for Israel. If we continue the occupation it will destroy us. My heart is so heavy these days and I pray for peace and sanity among the Israeli leaders every day, as specially now when we see the awful price all involved are paying and the ramped racism and growing hatred.
The Israelis I know feel imprisoned by the hard-core ideological settlers and their hold on this government - including some who themselves live in settlements. The right-wing agenda - which is at its core anti-democratic, a "Jews-only" belief system - rules the roost. This agenda is not hidden: Naftali Bennet, who is one of the most popular and powerful members of the Knesset, leads a political party called "The Jewish Home," whose agenda Americans would call racist. Israelis tend to use the word "nationalist" to describe the same thing; whatever you call it, this party and those to its right seek to make Israel the home of the Jews and no one else.
More and more frequently I see the bumper sticker "Jews Love Jews." This is not a message promoting in-marriage. Rather, it means Israeli Arabs be damned. Mainstream radio, which I listen to as I drive my kids around Jerusalem, is horrific in how people talk about the Arab community within Israel, let alone those under occupation. "Mavet l'aravim" [Death to Arabs] is scratched into the windows of busses that I have taken and is chanted openly in the streets during demonstrations, when tensions flare and mobs look for Arabs to assault. Love of Jews goes only so far, apparently, because "Mavet l'smolonim" - Death to leftists - has also become a chant and a real threat.
The threat of internal violence is more palpable in Jerusalem than Hamas' rockets. A few examples:
- I am friends with a Palestinian woman who lives in East Jerusalem, near the American Colony Hotel. I met her because our children went to the American school together. You'd probably find her familiar - she's lived in the US, speaks perfect English, and her husband works in private equity. She doesn't wear a veil, and she fasts for Ramadan but doesn't pray. Last year her family's cars were torched outside their home. With the violence in Jerusalem, she is afraid every time she leaves her home. Since the murder of Mohammed abu Khdeir she has been afraid to let her sons - a lovely boy entering 1st grade (Alice's friend), and another entering 4th grade - out of their house to play.
- This week I visited the B'tselem office. B'tselem, which means "in the image" referring to the fact that we are all made in God's image, is an internationally-regarded organization that documents human rights violations in the Territories. (Rachel interned here in 1996, and she and I first met 15 years ago when Hagai El-ad, now B'Tselem's Executive Director, was speaking in NYC.) There are guards at the office doors because of threats to Hagai and the rest of the staff.
- A knowledgeable source told me yesterday that Knesset members on the left have been told to "take precautions," because of credible threats against them from other Jews.
- Sunday evening, the Hand-in-Hand bilingual school (where Jewish and Palestinian children study together) will be holding a walk from the school down the rakevet (railway) path near our home to demonstrate their friendship. Two friends were discussing the walk tonight. They both agreed it could be dangerous to attend because of violence from the right but were considering going anyway. Down the block from my home.
One takeaway I have had during these months is that most Israeli Jews have never had a deep relationship with a non-Jew. Never having had a personal trust relationship with a non-Jew is an unrecognized structural impediment to ending the occupation. Most of my good friends and family are Jewish, but I have always had friends who aren't Jews. I've loved non-Jews. I've trusted non-Jews. I know in my bones that I, a Jew, can trust a non-Jew with my life. Israeli Arabs are a bigger share of Israel than African-Americans are of the U.S., but Israeli Jews grow up as segregated from them as whites and blacks during Jim Crow - without even the domestic intimacy that existed then. If you are a Jew who has trusted a non-Jew, you should think about taking an action below.
By order of the Israeli government, Israeli Jews (except for soldiers) cannot enter Areas A and B of the West Bank, where 95% of Palestinians live. Thus, they can't do as I did many times this sabbatical - with Encounter, with J Street, and on my own with Rachel - see for themselves the cities and villages of the West Bank, or meet the locals. They can't see Rawabi, a new Palestinian suburb being built that looks exactly like Israeli towns such as Modi'in or Gilo. They can't hear Palestinians of different political viewpoints talk about what they believe, what they question, and what they hope for. They can't see Palestinians in their diversity and in their commonality.
Of course, separation means that Palestinians can't see Israelis either.
A man from Ramallah said something that made me very sad. He said, "The Israelis say we teach hatred in our textbooks - we don't need to! The only Israelis my twelve-year-old son has ever met are soldiers and settlers. He is scared of all Israelis though I tell him that most Israelis are just like us and want to be at home with their kids. and in peace."
Many Israelis on the left feel that their government cynically manipulated them regarding the kidnappings and deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. We now know that within days the government was almost totally sure the boys were dead - they had evidence of bullets in the car, which was found with the help of the Palestinian Authority police, as well as the tape to the police. And yet, they covered it up. Many believe the government wanted to use the time until the bodies were found to intimidate Palestinians, round up Hamas members, and "create Jewish unity."
When the bodies of the boys were found, the government had to end these manipulative deeds. Instead they began to incite violence and revenge with words. Prime Minister Netanyahu directly called for revenge: "They were murdered in cold blood by human animals. In the name of the entire Jewish people, I want to say to the dear families - mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers - our hearts are bleeding. We are crying with you. Revenge over the blood of a small child is not the devil's work, and neither is revenge for the blood of a teenager or young man - who was on his way to meet his parents - and whom was never seen again."
The call for revenge was immediately answered when a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped by Jews and burned alive. I was surprised that Israelis were shocked. We were at a lovely dinner party in Ramat Gan the night it was confirmed the killers were Jews. The Israelis around the table were aghast. One woman, an experienced tour guide in her 50s, said she'd told her tour group, "It is impossible Jews would have committed this murder." I, on the other hand, wasn't at all surprised. All year I saw layers and layers of Jewish disdain for any "other" - Palestinians, legal foreign workers, illegal foreign workers, asylum seekers.
Actually, it isn't a war because then the government would have to pay benefits, but everyone calls it a war. One friend - a wonderful Jewish feminist who has been a leader of Women of the Wall - has two sons called up in Gaza, a third the West Bank, and she herself is undergoing cancer surgery next week. She wrote me, "These are the most challenging times I have ever faced. I am trying to gain strength and build." Hamas is terrible. They want to kill the Jews. They want to destroy Israel. These are constants - and we are seeing this particular war at this particular time because Netanyahu and the hawks he fears even further to his right wanted to undermine the unity government of Hamas and Fatah so that Israel would not have to negotiate a peace deal that would end the occupation. Before the war, Hamas was at its weakest point ever - its willingness to join with Fatah was understood by Palestinians as an endorsement of Fatah's acceptance of Israel. Today, Hamas is stronger in the opinion of West Bank Palestinians than it has ever been.
Last week I sat in on a fascinating foreign policy session hosted by Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Politics, about what happens after the war. Here is a link to the report from the workshop, which addresses the changing dynamics in the Middle East, regional and international mechanisms for mediation and ceasefire implementation, the need to move from conflict management to conflict resolution, the difficulties of demilitarizing the Gaza Strip, the economic rebuilding of Gaza, the future of the Palestinian unity government and the Arab Peace Initiative.
I had lunch with an Israeli friend whose politics are center/center-right. He thinks that when this war is over, the majority of Israelis will demand an end to the hard-core ideological leadership of this country. I am not sure: few people I have spoken with analyze the future the same way. However, this was an interesting take from a friend who lost his hearing in one ear in a terrorist attack and who for many years believed in the settlement enterprise.
So what can we do? Most importantly: don't let the cynical voice go off in your head that says "I can't do anything." I know you. you know me. our networks are powerful and we have all made change in other arenas because we applied our brains, our financial resources, our leadership, and our connections. It takes focus and hard work but it can be done. Remember these motivating ideas 1) When my parents were born, Israel did not exist. Things change. 2) As Rabbi Tarfon said: It is not yours to complete the task, but you must try. 3) As one West Bank Palestinian said to us about his own work to end the Occupation, "If you think you are too small to affect anything, have you ever tried to sleep in a tent with a mosquito?"
Here are a few ideas for you:
1. Stay knowledgeable: Know what is happening in Israel and Palestine so you can be informed and speak with confidence. Three ideas:
- Subscribe to News Nosh, a hidden gem: This daily update from Americans for Peace Now is among the most comprehensive news update you'll find. In English, it gives headlines and links to important articles from four major Israeli papers across the political spectrum: Maariv, Haaretz, Israel HaYom (owned by Sheldon Adelson) and Yedioth Ahranot. It also offers a "news summary" section and an "analysis" section. It is free, you should subscribe now, here.
- Subscribe to Haaretz. Every newspaper in Israel has a strong editorial slant. Haaretz is lefty, but unlike many Israeli papers which almost never print contrarian views, Haaretz does - so you can get to know how both sides think. I heard this week that an analysis of web traffic found that Haaretz is the source most widely read both by people on the left and the right. Good journalism isn't free, so you have to pay for Haaretz's site, but I truly think it is worth it. There will be links from here to subscribe.
- Read and support the Forward. Based in New York and covering Jewish life nationally and around the world, the Forward is independent and unafraid to publish things that challenge the American-Jewish mainstream. Terrific independent reporting plus well-chosen voices from outside, you can read The Forward online and in print.
2. Take a trip to the West Bank with Encounter. At first I was going to write, "when you are in Israel, take a trip with Encounter." However, on second thought, if you can you should come to Israel for the purpose of taking an Encounter trip.
- Encounter is a 501c3 "dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be constructive agents of change in transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." It fulfills its mission by running trips for Jews - as Jews - to the West Bank to hear Palestinians talk about their lives and how they view the conflict. Interspersed with listening are small group discussions among the Jewish participants.
- A highlight of my time in Israel was my trips with Encounter: an evening in East Jerusalem, a day in Dheishe refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, a day in Ramallah, and two days in Bethlehem. Each and every program was a transformative learning experience for me. despite the fact that I have visited the West Bank and Gaza over 25 years and seen life-under occupation too many times.
- If you haven't done an Encounter trip, you should. On my trips I met people to the right of me (by a lot) and the left of me (by a lot), and every person was grateful to have had this experience.
3. Get involved with and contribute to organizations that work to end the occupation (and don't support organizations that support the status quo.)
Quick thoughts: 1. Money matters: The pro-settlement, pro-occupation, anti-Arab, no-peace-ever movement is very well funded. The government subsidizes this movement with billions of shekels for the settlements. Sheldon Adelson funds this movement. He also owns Israel HaYom, a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and a free daily that is available everywhere. Pure and simple, money has helped the right to grow. Sadly, there are no such "mega-funders" on the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement that can match the Israeli government and Adelson. I know it sounds trite - but your contribution to the organizations below will make a difference. 2. No organization is perfect. I wish I could give you a perfect organization to fund that will help to bring about two states for two peoples. In the meantime, consider these organizations.
a. A relatively larger Israeli organization to explore, which also has programming in the USA: New Israel Fund (NIF) - NIF is the largest organization advancing democracy and equality for all Israelis, as stated in Israel's Declaration of Independence. Established in 1979, NIF has done wonderful work creating an engaged civil society and volunteer sector in Israel. Recently, NIF decided to focus more of its energies on the political landscape because it is obvious that Israel's democracy - and its people - suffer enormously from the current political atmosphere. The new initiatives that they are supporting to expand the pro-democracy, progressive camp are important, as liberal democracy is at risk in Israel and overt racism and xenophobia are on the rise.
b. Some smaller organizations which do important work in Israel (many, but not all, are NIF grantees):
- Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. An important research institute dedicated to the fundamental political and social issues in Israel. (Their new English website will be up soon.)
- Shacharit: A "think and do" tank with the goal of presenting fresh thinking on Israeli society, and to offer an alternative to the current quagmire, an alternative that Shacharit calls "a politics of the common good".
- Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (see above where I give a link to their report)
- Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR): The only rabbinic organization in Israel explicitly dedicated to human right in Israel and the Occupied Territories. This organization does important work on several fronts. (A small thing - but one reason I like RHR. All over Israel in the past days large banners have gone up saying something like "Chase your enemies and don't stop until you get them all." Today at shul I saw Arik Asherman, the Executive Director of RHR, and he told me that tonight they are going to go around the country placing banners next to them, also quoting the Bible, about fear being the enemy.)
- Physicians for Human Rights: I have an Israeli friend who volunteers for PHR and she says their work is excellent. Their goal is the advancement and defense of health-related human rights for all the residents of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. This includes residents who lack documents or who are not recognized by the state.
- ACRI: The Association for Civil Rights in Israel: ACRI, like the ACLU, deals with the entire spectrum of rights and civil liberties issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories. ACRI has continually brought precedent setting litigation to the Supreme Court since it was established in 1972 thus making a real and lasting difference to life in Israel.
- B'tselem: Founded in 1989 by prominent Knesset members, academics and journalists, B'tselem endeavors to document and education the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help to create a human rights culture in Israel. B'tselem is extremely well respected for its work.
- Hand-in-Hand: The Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel: Five schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab children study together and learn one another's language and culture. Hand-in-Hand demonstrates there is another way for Jewish and Palestinians to be together.
c. There are several organizations in America to explore:
- J Street - J Street is an important political organization for pro-Israel, pro-peace activists. J Street - which is criticized from the right and left - is especially good if you are interested in and want to be active in the American political scene. (I also traveled in Israel and Palestine with J Street this year and thought their work was excellent).
- Americans for Peace Now (APN) (which works in the USA and also helps to fund the critical work of Peace Now's Settlement Watch) Partners for Progressive Israel (which was Meretz USA) Just Vision (which does excellent media work about non-violence as a tool for building a peaceful future Israel and Palestine) and Ameinu (supporting the progressive movement in Israel) are also organizations to investigate if you want to be active in America. All of these organizations support their important counterparts in Israel and provide high-quality information via meetings and conference calls to their supporters in the States.
- To the left of them is Jewish Voice for Peace, whose work is more grassroots and less focused on Congress. They got a lot of attention this year for helping facilitate the Presbyterian Church's boycott of settlement-made goods.
Despite the failure of Kerry's mediation this spring, the United States plays an important role in this conflict. After all, Israel received over $3.1 billion of Foreign Military Financing from the United States this year. Please, do something. I love Israel and each day of my seven months here was profound in its own way. There are creative, passionate and kind people here. This is a place where miracles can and do happen. And yet, I cannot deny my fear and the fears of those around me. I've heard too many smart people say "it is too complicated." It is complicated but you are smart enough to understand what is going on - and it is the responsibility of our generation to act for the sake of the Jewish future, if not for the people who live in Israel and Palestine today. Have a conversation with friends, speak up in your synagogue, join and support an organization, raise your hand - and your voice - in a meeting. It might be uncomfortable. I know this first-hand. But take the risk. As Anshel Pfeffer wrote this week in Haaretz, "we can blame the Palestinians and the Arabs and the international community all we like, but it was our responsibility to make sure our children wouldn't have to go off and kill or be killed." Again, please do something.
Sally August 3, 2014
 For an excellent article talking about how the separation between Jews and Palestinians has become policy and its influence on what is happening read Ethan Bronner's "A Damaging Distance: For Israelis and Palestinians, Separation is Dehumanizing" from the New York Times. As he points out, "in the heartland of Tel Aviv, where two-thirds of the country lives, [one] can go weeks without ever laying eyes on a Palestinian or ever having to think about one."
 "Revealed: Behind the scene hunt to find the kidnapped boys" by Amos Harel and Yaniv Kuvovitch in Haaretz, July 1, 2014
 "Netanyahu on murders of three Israeli Teens: Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay" Haaretz, June 30, 2014
 Israeli citizens are forbidden by Israel to visit most places Encounter visits on the West Bank. Thus, ironically, diaspora Jews are able to gain a unique perspective not easily afforded Israelis. However, if you are Israeli, Encounter does run programs in East Jerusalem and Area C.
[Sally Gottesman, Co-Founder and Board Chair of Moving Traditions, has long been committed to Jewish and gender issues, having worked for the Israel Women's Network and The New Israel Fund, and having served on the Boards of American Jewish World Service, Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Funders Network, and The Jewish Women's Archive. Currently, Sally is on the Executive Committee of her synagogue, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in NYC. A consultant to not-for-profit organizations, Sally graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Management. The opinions expressed here are her own.]