Sunday, February 10, 2013

Looking Destiny in the Face

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel around Israel with other members of the Northern California Rabbis. I got a glimpse of aspects of the country I wouldn't have otherwise seen. As are so many things in Israel, it was at times difficult and upsetting, and other times, uplifting and inspirational.

We visited Bina, an organization geared toward social action grounded in Jewish text; a wonderful alternative for text study that is not Orthodox. After study with them, they took us on a tour of their neighborhood.  Bina is located right next to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, which is a neighborhood inhabited by the largest illegal worker and asylum seeker population in Israel. Like every democratic nation in the world, Israel struggles with whether and how these people can be incorporated into Israeli society. And, just like every other democratic nation, there are those that have an issue with the fact that they are here, and there are those who have an issue with how they are treated and the conditions under which they live now that they are here. Organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, whose executive director also met with us, are working to improve their situation and address other basic civil rights issues in Israel as well.

We heard from a field director at "Iggy", a Gay Youth Organization in Tel Aviv. He is a gay Orthodox Jew. He told us his story of growing up in a settlement in Sumeria, of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation, of coming out during his army service, and of five years ago, helping to found "The Proud Minyan", a halachic egalitarian minyan at the Gay Center in Gan Meir.

In Haifa, we went to the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, which is a part of MASHAV-Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, a branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have led hundreds of training courses to promote women's leadership, poverty eradication and socio-economic development throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Mediteranean.

We went to the Beit Hagafen Center, and heard from leaders from the Jewish and Arab communities on ways in which the communities in Haifa are leading the way toward peaceful coexistence.

We had dinner with a member of the Jerusalem City Council; an Orthodox woman who has been instrumental in enforcing the illegality of gender segregation on public buses. As she explains it, when the country was being formed, the secular Jews gave in to the religious Jews figuring that they wouldn't last very long in Israel, and the religious Jews gave into the secular Jews figuring they wouldn't last very long in Israel.  Now, as the country is about to turn 65, everyone is realizing that they are stuck with each other. Israel is still a young country, she said, struggling with who it is going to be.

She relayed one story to us that I must share. In her work on gender segregation on buses, she said she spoke with a woman who belongs to a very conservative Haredi sect. The woman told her that sometimes, she thinks that God created non-Orthodox women to help protect the Orthodox ones.

We had a political briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They gave us a detailed overview of the situation here in the Middle East.  However, the one question that was really on everyone's mind at that time, whether or not Israel had actually bombed Syria, they could not answer.

We went to Hebron and heard from settlers about their dedication and commitment to keeping a Jewish presence there, as it has been a home for Jews since the days of Abraham. While in Hebron, we went to the cave of Machpelah, the burial place for six of the seven matriarchs and patriarchs. For hundreds of thousands of Jews who make pilgrimage there every year, it is one of holiest sites in all of Israel.

Me at the outer wall of the shrine above the Cave of Machpelah. 
These walls were built at the same time as the Kotel.

We heard from the IDF commander for the region who, when asked if the Jewish presence in Hebron comes at too high a price, said absolutely not. He said that this is a piece of our history as a people and Jews must be able to live there.

We were also supposed to hear from a local Sheikh but the army insisted we cancel, explaining that protecting him as he speaks with more and more groups has become increasingly difficult.

We had a tour of East Jerusalem with an organization called Ir Amim.  They are concerned with the continued building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and of the discrepancies between the standard of living in Jewish versus Arab neighborhoods.  They showed us how parts of the security fence had cut neighborhoods in half and made life in those areas extremely difficult. As you might imagine, Ir Amim is a controversial organization.  This tour juxtaposed with our visit to Hebron made for a very powerful day.

We heard a talk by a sociologist who explained that Israel is moving into a post ideological phase. Today, people are more concerned with values. What is the distinction? He gave, for example, the recent elections. Yesh Atid, the party that said almost nothing about the peace process and focused almost entirely on domestic issues of socieo-economics, civil rights, and engaging the entire population in societal participation was far more popular than was expected. Whereas Labor, whose roots are in socialism and who would have dramatically changed the course of the government on many levels had they been in the position to do so, was less popular. People are working within the societal structure, not looking to revamp it according to a specific ideology.

We learned Chassidic teachings from a Chabad scholar.

And lastly, our trip wrapped up with a conversation with Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall. She reported that IRAC has made some huge strides recently on issues dealing with gender equality, though of course there are more battles to be won. However, she expressed concern that they have yet to really make a dent in the growing racism, particularly when it comes to rabbis making racist comments about Arabs. Such comments are entirely illegal, she explained, as Israeli law is quite sophisticated when it comes to this kind of thing. The struggle is in getting everyone to enforce the law.

We saw Israel from all different perspectives: religious, secular, secular traditional, liberal religious, Jewish, Arab, diplomatic, political, legal and scholarly. We got an in depth understanding of the multiple ways people are trying wrestle with what Israel is, who Israel is, and how Israel should move forward.

There was at least some merit to what every single person had to say to us.  And nearly everyone recognized that theirs was not the only perspective.  For the most part, they were clear that their perspective was not absolute, but they had to address the issues from where they stood and through the values they hold. I was struck by the honesty and humility of so many of the people here.

We all know that Israel is complicated, but this trip was provided an insight for me as to how vast those complexities are. However, I also left the week feeling optimistic about the future of the State of Israel, and the future for the Jewish people.  True, we have profound issues.  Yet every where we look, people are jumping right into the fray, addressing the problems, seeking out solutions, and working with others.  They are taking hold of the future, and making it something of which they can be proud.

As a people, we haven't always been like this.  When Moses lead the Israelites into the desert, they stood at the foot of the mountain and God spoke the ten commandments to each one of them.  They reacted with fear, asking Moses to go up the mountain and receive the law for them.  Everything that had happened in our people's history had led to this moment, and when they got there, they couldn't handle it.  They needed a buffer, a go between to protect them from their own potential and their own capabilities. What we see in Israel today is evidence of how far we have come from that fear. We, too, have waited a long time to be a sovereign nation, and now that the time has come, no one is shying away. While everyone knows what lies ahead will be difficult, we are looking destiny in the face and creating a future for ourselves.

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