How I Spent My Winter Vacation – Ameinu Style

Categories: Letters From Leadership

“It’s complicated”.

If the six day Ameinu mission to Israel (December 30th 2010 to January 5th) had a mantra, that was it.   As the 24 people who were to be a part of this adventure began trickling into the Jerusalem hotel lobby it became clear that this was no ordinary group.   With ages ranging from 15 to 93 and knowledge of Israel ranging from cursory to intimate, there was one common denominator—the desire to make some sense of a country where a society based on cutting edge technology and areas of primitive  infrastructures co-exist.  Where the population, all within miles of one another, consists of citizens, Jewish and Arab, with full rights, Arab residents with some rights, non-citizens living in a state of occupation, new Jewish immigrants with automatic citizenship, Bedouins here before the state was established, illegal residents working to send money home to far off relatives and on and on.  It could make your head spin—and it did.  Our session after dinner that first night drew a consensus.  We were going to go through these days not as starry-eyed tourists on a Disneyland tour of Israel.  We felt strong enough in our love for Israel to see it through a nuanced lens where the beauty, creativity and sheer aliveness of the country could exist side by side with the sadness, corruption, extremism and fear that one comes face to face with when the surface is scratched.  We were ready to see the wonderful and the warts.    Here are some of the highlights.The Museum at the Seam, situated at the old site of the Mandelbaum Gate, provided an historic overview of the initial division of Jerusalem into East and West after the War of Independence in 1948 and until 1967.   But the history lesson went further than that. The museum’s current exhibit used a combination of media to provide an expansive and moving survey of man’s inhumanity to man and of modern day oppression throughout the world, together with a portrayal of the right and responsibility to protest these injustices.

This set the mood for our next stop at Sheik Jarrah where Arab families have been evicted from their homes after the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that these homes belonged to Jews before the city was divided in 1948.   In the cold and rain, knowing full well that our creature comforts were waiting for us, we spoke with two family representatives who described their experience of having lost their homes.  Those who chose to returned in the afternoon to participate with 200 other Arabs, Israelis and tourists, whose numbers increase each Friday, to protest these evictions, this week in the pouring rain and chill.   And the questions poured out as we sat down to Friday night dinner.  How could this happen?  What was the justification by the Supreme Court for these evictions?  If Arabs are asked to give back homes, why were Jews not also required to give up homes previously occupied by Arabs?    It’s complicated.

The following day we were privileged to meet with Ron Shatzberg, a Colonel in the IDF reserves, who took us around the edges of Jerusalem. He explained in great detail how the municipal boundary of Jerusalem, that area annexed by Israel after the 6 Day War, was determined by Moshe Dayan. All the hills that surround the city were incorporated into what was to be declared the unified city of Jerusalem.  The priority at the time was to protect the city from the next “ground war”. Ron went on at length to explain that we probably will never fight another ground war and instead we have, in some cases, trapped Arab residents of Jerusalem on one side of the Security Barrier or the other, very often dividing them from their families or their traditional lands. Ron took us to parts of Jerusalem that most Israelis never venture into. We were in areas of Jerusalem where public buses do not run. We traveled through parts of Jerusalem where the electric service was from the Palestine Electric Company and not Israel itself. The fact that the city of Jerusalem is already defacto divided was very clear.

Unfortunately we were unable to meet with the Minister of the Interior of Ramallah due to a severe traffic tie-up.   Here too, however, there was an opportunity to learn as we passed through a crossing from Israel into occupied land.   We were shown the difference between a crossing and a checkpoint and what was endured by Arabs passing through these checkpoints.   Tensions were high in this area of occupation and the traffic jam made tempers fly.   A small traffic accident led to an altercation between our Arab driver and an enraged group of young Arab men.  This was not a political event but the rage and the feeling that there were no authorities to intervene induced fear in some of us and served as a reality check of the environment we were passing through.   Compassion and fear make for strange bedfellows.

Our trip north the next day was a glance into the Israel of heroism and the grassroots of the kibbutz movement.   Personally, this felt like more familiar territory. We went to Degania – the first kibbutz to honor the pioneers, the romance of a new way of life, old Israel.   But here we were and the Kibbutz scene was now in a museum!    The Chadar Ochel, (dining hall) once the center of kibbutz life, stood empty except for a smattering of foreign workers.  We were served lunch by what seemed to be waiters, not the kibbutzniks of old.   As we toured the kibbutz with a former member I felt extremely privileged to have known and experienced kibbutz life as it once was, before privatization, not having been aware at the time that this was a fleeting chapter in the history of Israel.    Change is difficult.  It’s complicated.

Julian Resnick, the central Shaliach (Israeli emissary) to Habonim Dror North America, joined us for a walk in the Kinneret Cemetery, a “who’s who” of chalutzim (pioneers), Labor Zionist ideologues of the Second and Third Aliya, the great poetess, Rachel and the songwriter, Naomi Shemer.  Julian accompanied us to various sites including the memorial to 73 killed in a helicopter crash during the second Lebanese war.  As we entered a beautiful clearing in the woods where the helicopter had fallen we saw slabs of stone hung from the trees like leaves, each with an individual fallen’s name on it.  The real leaves had now grown back but I remembered being told by a friend who lives in the upper Galil and worked on this memorial that at first the leaves had been burned off, leaving the slabs as the only “leaves”.   Julian made the experience more real by telling an intricate story of one of the fallen—the huge hole left by a life lost, a life wasted was visceral.

The memorial was unique in its highlighting of the names of the fallen, taking the tragedy from an abstract to a realization of the impact of the loss of each individual.   These were people with lives and dreams and loved ones whose lives were shattered and changed forever.    This memorial and others we saw that day were beautiful and moving and we all agreed that we hoped for a future where no more beautiful memorials would have to be erected.

The next day brought with it one of the highlights for me of this amazing trip.   We visited Migdal HaEmek, a small town in the Galil where one of the 160, yes 160, urban kibbutzim was going strong.  As a member of Habonim, I considered myself a “graduate” of the movement.  My blue shirt disappeared somewhere between college and marriage. But here were young men and women, young adults many of whom had already started their families (baby car seats lined up in the office were testimony to that) who had not left the movement behind.  Instead they have made the values of the movement into a lifestyle and are living their ideals by developing and implementing social programs within their communities and becoming integral parts of those communities. These urban kibbutz members come from Labor Zionist movements Machanot Olim and Habonim Dror. They are a mixture of native-born Israelis and olim from North America, South America, and Great Britain. They are working and living together to establish an alternative to the land-based kibbutz, thus assuring a continuation of kibbutz values in a changing world. The urban kibbutz also leaves room for those who wish to work in different professions while still being full members of the urban kibbutz infrastructure.  What is most impressive is that these communities do not benefit from any support from the kibbutz movement, the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, the WZO or the JNF and are surviving independently.   Much discussion followed this meeting regarding Ameinu’s role in supporting these communities and the importance of getting the word out about these amazing young people.   Speaking for myself, although I had heard of the urban kibbutz, I had no idea as to the extent of these communities and their growing success.   It was agreed that the word had to get out and that Ameinu was just the organization to get behind them and to do that.    This visit was an antidote to the bleakness of some of things we had seen so far.

During our visit to Nazareth we met with a director of a well-known NGO dedicated to improving conditions for Israeli Arabs.   We learned from our host, Mohammed Darwashe, of the disparity between levels of government support for infrastructure (school, public transportation, sanitation, etc.) in Israeli Arab towns.   Consider that reality and the fact that we went directly from that meeting down the block to a modern commercial building where, tucked away on the second floor, was an elegant restaurant where we were served delicious Arab delicacies and were wined and dined in first class style.  The chef, a modern Arab Israeli woman, was delighted to share her secret ingredients with us.

Whoosh!  Off to drive electric cars just North of Tel Aviv.   Sign me up.  Too bad they aren’t for sale yet but this Israeli start-up company, A Better Place, showed us the future through a multi-media presentation, culminating in a chance to drive these eerily quiet but otherwise regular looking cars.  Charging stations are set up all over the country already along with sleek completely human free computer operated battery change centers.  I would like to say that Ameinu is taking orders but, alas, it is not a licensed dealership yet.

From high-tech science non-fiction we were transported to the BINA center to delve into ancient scripture, breaking into small groups in the Rabbinic tradition of scholarly study. The session was led by Noga Brenner Samia, one of the directors of this secular Yeshiva offering programs that translate Jewish tradition into tikun olam and social justice action.  BINA has been a strategic partner with Ameinu for several years and recently a BINA instructor was brought to the United States by Ameinu to engage the American Jewish community as well.   The text studied was about the different levels of righteousness inherent in different forms of giving.  Our leader resisted the urge to tell us that giving to Ameinu anonymously and unsolicited would be the highest form of giving.

The next morning our group was wowed by a private briefing with  Government Minister of Minority Affairs, Avishai Braverman, whose fierce loyalty to the values and tenets of the Labor Party persists in the face of difficult challenges.   His passion was infectious and some of the group gave him a standing ovation.  I was disappointed that he left no opening for questions or discussion.

We continued on daroma la midbar (South to the desert) to meet with Vivian Silver and Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, co-directors of NISPED  (Negev Institute for Strategies for Peace and Development) who described their programs for Negev Bedouins.   We saw first-hand how NISPED provided structure and education to the children of Hashem Zaneh, an  unrecognized Bedouin village off the grid of any and all public utilities and services. We learned that  NISPED is dedicated to improving the lot of Bedouins in a two-pronged effort both with advocacy to the government  and by improving their standard of living within the framework of the cultural boundaries of their life.

We visited the newly erected schoolhouse and a playground which were made possible by direct support from Ameinu. We were proud to have helped facilitate NISPED’s work on the ground.   Young volunteers on their pre-army Shnat Sheirut (year of service) were on hand providing structured play and activities in the schoolyard.  We enjoyed lunch in the Bedouin tent of our hosts and were able to speak directly to these young people about their experience as volunteers as well as to village residents.  I was aware of the extreme sensitivity that was necessary in these programs not to impinge our values onto a people who have been nomads for centuries yet have members of their community in mainstream professions in society.

Our trip was drawing to a close.  We had now bonded together on our six day odyssey (I believe there was a war of that length once).  Our final stop before the 75th Anniversary of Habonim bash at Gezer that night was Kfar Aza, a kibbutz whose panoramic view to the West is Gaza. We were invited into the home of Kibbutznikim who treated us to refreshments and a homey, welcoming atmosphere.  We were given a candid explanation of life on this border kibbutz and it was clear that these people have made many sacrifices in life to remain in this volatile area where, before Cast Lead, a kibbutz member was killed in front of his horrified family by a missile which hit him straight on while he was working in his garden.   I was acutely aware of the existential struggle this family lives every day and my mind wandered back to the existential struggle of the people in Sheik Jarrah as well.  Not to sound like a broken record but—it’s complicated.

There could not have been a better culmination to our trip than a party of about 250 people coming together for a 75th anniversary celebration of Habonim North America.   Our little group was now a part of a larger entity and those of us who had serious reunion work to do were carried away from the cohesiveness of our small group into the energy of this great event.   Muki Tsur, kibbutz ideologue, was just one of the featured speakers of the evening and his memories of shlichut and involvement with the movement were a pleasure to listen to. Gil Browdy, former Mazkir T’nua (movement General Secretary) and a member of an urban kibbutz, was proof the chain continues and that the torch is in good hands.  In that one room were three and possibly even four generations of Habonim-Dror inspired people, most of whom now live in Israel.   I found my Urim 17th workshop friends and my Machaneh Bonim Daled madrich (counselor) among others there.    It was a real high.

After six days of sometimes gloomy facts and figures, the sight of all these people who have made Israel their home and who came out on a work night to celebrate the past and the present was a wonderful way to end the trip.   People living everyday lives, working, paying bills, raising children and grandchildren.   I had to remind myself of the importance of remembering that it is our country but it is also the country to many others as well.   It is Midinat Yisrael, home to all Jews and to all of its non-Jewish citizens to loosely quote Ben Gurion.   But what would he do with annexed citizens, temporary residents, and the occupied?  And I haven’t even mentioned the Orthodox and the settlements. But that just all brings me back to the beginning. There is much work to be done in this little country of ours.

Hope to see you on the next Ameinu mission!

Want to see even more pictures from the Ameinu Mission? Just click here  and go to PHOTOS.

About Deborah Bunim-Simon

Deborah Bunim-Simon, (nee Slomovitz) attended Habonim Camp Tavor, Machaneh Bonim Daled and the 17th workshop at Kibbutz Urim. Deborah was active in Ken Lachish in Milwaukee and lived in Israel for nine years. After graduating from Hebrew University with a BA in History and English Literature and working as a High School teacher in Jerusalem and Haifa, she returned to the United States. Deborah went on to become a PhD social worker and psychoanalyst and currently has a private practice in Englewood, NJ. She has two children, both of whom attended Habonim Dror Camp Galil, and three grandchildren.
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