I am writing to you from Israel. I have been in Israel for three weeks and I’m overflowing with images and experiences that weave together the deeply heart-breaking and profoundly inspiring realities of life here. I have been having conversations with you about it all in my mind throughout my trip (even though this is a vacation — what can I say? You are with me.) And I want to bring you here to walk the ancient and modern streets with me; to be together in a place where being Jewish is the majority culture, and to experience what possibilities for Jewish creativity and healing are uniquely available in this context; to meet the Jewish Israelis and Palestinians I love and listen to and argue with; to witness the political and human realities in a place that is becoming increasingly right wing and arrogantly nationalistic, alongside witnessing the efforts that are rarely reported on in the news — of people building mutual recognition and understanding across various lines of difference and conflict (Jewish Israeli-Palestinian, citizens-refugees, religious-secular, etc.); working in partnership for a society that enacts democratic values and affirms the rights, safety, and dignity of all who live in the region.
I have been growing a relationship with Israel my entire life. But with this visit, I feel a messy and beautiful, heart-mind-soul, pulsatingly significant revitalized, relationship with this place and its people. It was alive when I walked among 25,000 others for the Jerusalem March for LGBTQ Pride and Tolerance, with a particularly strong attendance of religious and secular participants alike in the wake of last year’s stabbing death of 16-year-old Shira Banki at the hands of Yishai Schlissel. It was dancingly alive during a Kabbalat Shabbat service that made me weep at a new community called Zion, an Israeli egalitarian community that melds Ashkenazi and Mizrachi musical traditions into prayer song that shakes the walls of both the room and of one’s heart. It is a connection that is inseparable from my Jewish identity and it comes with both a deep sense of the interdependence and an inviting and demanding sense of responsibility between the Jewish community back home and life in Israel and in Palestine.
I don’t have a clear picture yet of what I personally want to do next with this sense of responsibility and interdependence, or what I want to invite us to explore and do as a community, but I want us to think about it together, both as we enter this year marking 50 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and of the Palestinian people living there, and as we explore what an aspirational relationship with Israel might entail.
The central purpose of my time here has been to be a facilitator on a four-day Encounter trip. I was involved in leading twenty-four key North American rabbis, educators, and Jewish professionals and philanthropists from a wide range of religious and political perspectives to meet with Palestinians in the Bethlehem area, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah, and to grapple together, among the diverse Jewish group, with all that we witnessed. I co-founded this educational organization in 2005 with Melissa Weintraub when we were both rabbinical students. As the separation wall was being built, systematically and increasingly separating Jewish Israelis and Palestinians from each other, we were clear that North American Jews are in the important position of being able to honestly and compassionately witness both sides — their respective suffering, fears, and visions for their future. We found that our colleagues already had deep relationships with Israel and Israelis but few had witnessed Palestinian life on the other side of the separation wall or had heard diverse Palestinian voices and narratives. It was and is our belief that informed and effective Jewish leadership (lay-leadership as well as professional) requires this multi-faceted and complicated picture. The program also trains participants to listen with resilience; to examine one’s beliefs, reactions, and assumptions; to wrestle with conflicting values; and to seek to understand those different from oneself. Since its beginning, well over 2,000 Jewish leaders have participated in an Encounter program.
I would love to tell you about everyone we met with but for now, I’ll focus on the project that I found most powerful and hopeful. It’s called Roots. On a piece of land in the West Bank owned by the family of Ali Abu Awwad, surrounded by Jewish settlements and dotted Palestinian villages, groups of Palestinians and Israelis meet to foster a grassroots movement of understanding, non-violence, and transformation. Roots was founded by Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from Beit Umar, and Shaul Judelman, an Israeli from Tekoa. Both Israelis and Palestinians speak and listen to one another, working to build trust, to shift away from hatred and suspicion, working together as partners who recognize each other’s rightful claim and historical roots in this land. This is a rarity in Israel; all the more so among settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Ali is a man who has every right to be enraged and vengeful after his brother was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. He himself spent time in an Israeli prison. There he learned the power of non-violent activism to secure rights and make change. Shaul speaks of the numerous funeral of his friends and loved ones that he has attended. He too has every right to be enraged and vengeful. Yet both have chosen to build genuine human relationships, to create the conditions for respectful co-existence, and to grow their own people’s security and dignity woven through the hearts and minds of the other.
This work reminds me that hope is not based on what is — whether or not there is a “partner for peace”, whether or not “we” can trust “them”, etc. Hope is built out of what we create with one another, bravely and honestly, through our humanity. Ali said that dreaming is not what you do when you’re asleep. Dreams are the visions that keep you awake until you realize them. And in his dream, our hearts are his weapons. This is a dream I want to invite us to participate in together.
Stay tuned for information about a program with Nazira and Sami Hamed, Palestinian friends I met in East Jerusalem, who will hopefully be coming to Toronto this August, if their VISAs come through, to talk about their lives and their involvement in Kids4Peace. Stay tuned for the date.