Ameinu Israel Journey, Progressive Zionism in Action

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Ameinu Israel Journey, Progressive Zionism in Action

I was honored to participate in the Ameinu Journey to Israel, December 28th to January 2nd, traveling across Israel with Ameinu activists, Board and staff to explore themes from Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land.” We called our Journey: “Having a Promised Land — The Challenge of the Covenant” and were truly challenged by the trip to dig deep into our preconceived notions about Israel, search for ways to deepen our connections to Israel, and strengthen our engagement with Israelis to help create a future of peace and justice.          

Many thanks go to our Journey guide and teacher, Julian Resnick, the World Maskir of Habonim Dror, and to Hiam Simon, Ameinu’s COO, for his work programming the trip.

What follows are personal reflections and impressions from the Journey, which, while not intended to be comprehensive, will hopefully give a flavor of what our group experienced while in Israel.  I hope you will consider joining us on future Journeys and being part of Ameinu’s ongoing partnership with Israelis building Zionism and social justice. 

 

 

Gideon Aronoff,

Ameinu, CEO

Day 1 – Arabs and Jews; Israel and Palestine

The first stop on the Ameinu Israel Journey was a visit to the Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab school, which, in November, suffered an arson attack with vicious anti-Arab hate graffiti. The attackers are part of Lehava, a Jewish racist and extremist group that fights integration of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Hand in Hand is an NGO with five schools and related adult communities of coexistence.   There we saw a powerful message of peace in action as children and families learned together for a better future.


At Hand in Hand we sat in on a Pre-K class, which was very sweet.  It was essentially impossible to differentiate the background of each child.  This was also the case when we spoke with older students who were comfortable together. It was all so simple and normal.

Regarding the arson and graffiti, the students were very pained by the attack, but they remained very committed to the experience and meaning of the school.  This was a great inspiration to all the Ameinu Journey participants.

From the Hand in Hand school the Ameinu Journey traveled into the West Bank to tour Rawabi – the first planned community in the West Bank. Eventually there will be 40,000 residents.
At present they are still struggling for access to needed water. They have great support from Israeli politicians but we were told the defense ministry is still blocking it. This could endanger the entire project since the first residents are set to move in March.

A question. Wouldn’t it make sense for the energy of BDS to support constructive projects like Rawabi – if they really want to help Palestine?

Next, we were off to Ramallah for lunch.  If you are looking for a fantastic meal in Ramallah definitely check out Orjuwan. You won’t be disappointed.   But be sure to leave plenty of time since the food was equally delicious and plentiful.

Much less encouraging was the traffic and chaos at the checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem. It was a no-man’s land from a security standpoint and a large crowd gathered around what seemed like a small accident. The only solution was tear gas fired on the drivers and pedestrians by the Israeli military. There has to be a better way.

 

We ended the first day of the Journey meeting with Knesset member Michal Biran for a conversation about the upcoming elections, economic and social challenges facing Israel, and efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians. We even got to raise concerns about water access for the new Palestinian city of Rawabi. It was very encouraging to see Israel in the hands of a new generation of Israeli leaders.

 

A final thought on Day 1 of the Ameinu Journey. Getting the opportunity to Meet Bashar Masri, visionary of the Rawabi development, gives great hope for the future of Israel and Palestine. It comes down to a simple message that most people just want a good life, with dignity and respect — as well as shopping, entertainment, and good mortgages. So, we consumers of Jewish and other media need to guard against stereotypes and simplistic depictions of the “other” and keep hope – Hatikvah- for a more just and peaceful future.

Day 2 – Jerusalem and Gaza

Day 2 of the Ameinu Journey began with a walking tour studying key issues in Jerusalem.

First we looked at the transition of municipal government to beautiful new facilities in Safra Square named after the Syrian Brazilian Jewish banker.  The sleek and modern new Jerusalem and the adjacent “Heavenly City” of the Old City create a dramatic contrast.  We saw the emotion of people praying at the Western Wall, considered the challenge of egalitarian Judaism and women’s equality and the dangerous dream of some Jews to build a Third Temple thereby igniting a religious war with Islam that could destroy both old and new Jerusalem.

We walked down the old Armistice Line from1949 to 1967 separating Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem. This visually reinforced the reality that the need for Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and Palestine will be a very challenging part of a final peace agreement.

A hopeful sign of cooperation was found in the Hospice of St Louis. It is a Catholic institution, publicly funded where Jews, Muslims and Christians are both the caregivers and hospice patients. There is also the irony of the super modern light rail in front of the crusader era building.

***

From Jerusalem, we boarded our Ameinu bus and traveled south to the border region with Gaza for a series of encounters with Israelis living under constant threat from Hamas rockets.

First stop was Kibbutz Zikim — about 1 km from Gaza.

We learned about conditions during last summer’s war. This kibbutz was attacked from the sea by Hamas frogmen — the battle was viewed from the communal dining hall. The kibbutz has no protection from rockets and only 15 seconds of notice of an attack.

Speaking to a kibbutz member, we heard about past cooperation with Gaza Palestinians — relationships that continued after the closing of the Erez crossing. Notwithstanding what she has experienced, including the latest war, she expressed continued hope for a peaceful future with her neighbors in Gaza.

The Ameinu Journey next drove just a few minutes to the border. We saw imposing double walls were built to protect Moshav Netiv Ha’asara and to prevent access of Hamas fighters into Israel.

Tsameret Zamir, an artist and moshav resident, described Path to Peace, an artistic response to the constant threats and violence from Hamas.  For all but two of the years she has spent on the moshav, Tsameret has lived under threat of rocket fire.  But her art makes a strong and beautiful statement – in Hebrew, Arabic, and English – that the current status quo is not acceptable.

As Tsameret declared, “I am not a politician. I don’t know the solution. But I have hope. All people just want to live safely and enjoy life.”

So we joined the art and peace process ourselves. And our Journey participants glued our hopes for peace to the peace wall.

The Ameinu Journey ended our visit to the Gaza border with an intense meeting with Nomika Zion of Sderot’s urban Kibbutz Migvan and the Other Voice Movement.  Sderot is the urban community most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets.  This reality was evident throughout Nomika’s presentation. But equally challenging were her efforts to identify with the suffering of the people of Gaza and the difficulties of acting against the political consensus in Israel today.  I, and I believe many in the Ameinu group, left with unanswered questions, but with a dramatic example of the stresses of political life on the edge of Gaza. 

Day 3 – Two Narratives
Ameinu Israel Journey began Day 3 at the Ben Shemen Youth Village. Key themes in this institution – with roots in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 – were helping children through labor, responsibility, agriculture, and good neighborliness. The goal was to address alienation of displaced and create rootedness. Lehman, a radical educator, from Berlin, strengthened the institution and built close ties with local Arab communities. He had a notion of Zionism as a bridge of East and West. Lehman wanted to live in harmony with the region of return.

Julian asked the group to think about whether Leman’s desire is possible or a delusion today. This will be a piece of the rest if the Journey. Youth Villages, like Ben Shemen, always focused on helping vulnerable children. A major population was orphans from the Holocaust. Today, they help troubled Russian and Ethiopian youth. Based on rehabilitation techniques of the Israeli youth villages, South African Jewish Habonim alum named Ann Heyman z”l created a youth village in Rwanda. I knew about the Rwanda project and was even more impressed thinking about it in the context of the historic Israeli commitment to protecting vulnerable Jewish youth.

***

Then on to Lod for an encounter with one of the most difficult chapters of “My Promised Land.” Julian presented the story that Ari Shavit tells in “My Promised Land” of the massacre in the small mosque in Lod/Lydda.

This is a story of massacre of hundreds of local Arab residents by fearful Israeli soldiers. It is also a story of the order by future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l to expel – on foot- the entire Arab population. It is what Shavit calls “Israel’s BlackBox.”

And Julian encouraged the Ameinu delegation — and all Israelis too — to take ownership of the dark parts of our own narrative and to speak to, and engage with, the pain of those who fled.

***

The Ameinu Journey ended Day 3 with a visit to a monument to families where all members were killed during the Holocaust, and the final member died fighting in the War of Independence in 1948.

This experience underscored the existential danger that Israel faced in the 1940s, during the war for independence and until today. But our teacher, Julian Resnick, stressed that we need to hold two ideas in mind at the same time. This existential fear was and is part of the Israeli and Jewish condition. It, in part, explains, but does not excuse, actions like that in Lod/Lydda that trouble our conscience.

Our struggle is to understand this fear and to seek a solution with the Palestinians that serves the most, and leads to the least numbers of killings and suffering. But compromise will be an absolute necessity for both sides.

This reminded me a story from the great Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz. He said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy. But it could be a Shakespearean Tragedy where the stage is littered with dead bodies. Or it could be a Chekhovian tragedy where everyone is upset, disappointed, and yet lives to experience and move on. This is also an example of Ameinu’s Third Narrative where we seek to honor the Jewish story and the Palestinian story and to help find a third narrative towards peace.

May we honor Chekhov and find a way to reach this type of compromise with our Palestinian neighbors.

Day 4 – The North — Galil, Golan, and Lebanon
Our experience in the north began with a beautiful walk in the Tel Dan National Forrest. The biblical history and the natural beauty offered a deep experience of why Israelis and Jews feel such a strong connection to the land of Israel.
***

But, as it did many times throughout the Journey, the realities of external threats were never far off.  From Tel Dan we traveled to Metula for a sobering briefing from retired Colonel Kobi Marom about Israel’s wars in Lebanon and the danger from a rearmed Hezbollah, just a short distance away.  Knowing that Hezbollah had tens of thousands of rockets stayed with us throughout the day as we traveled through the Galil and into the Golan Heights.
One moving and thought provoking stop on this day’s travels was a visit with Colonel Marom to the Helicopter Monument to pay respects and discuss how this accident — which took the lives of 73 soldiers — helped change Lebanon policy.

Three years after the accident Israel unilaterally withdrew after 20 years. We had a meaningful discussion over the role of public opinion in influencing military action. And an interesting look at how tragedy is memorialized in Israel.

Later in the day the Journey came to a spot where we viewed Sheba Farms, the 67 border with Syria and a Syrian Alewite village that requested to be included in Israel (Golan). Sheba is part of Golan that Lebanon Hezbollah challenged. A unique occurrence was that the UN sided with Israel thereby fully and legally ending Israel’s occupation of Lebanon.
Ameinu had the pleasure of dining with a number of charming IDF soldiers at a roadside steakhouse. The conversations reinforced the reality of Israel’s citizen soldiers. One fascinating story was the provision of medical help to injured people who come to the border seeking help. And to make sure we remember the deep history of the land, all you need do is look across the road at a crusader fortress.

Next the Journey moved on to the Golan Heights.

This was a strange visit for me. There was a multitude of Taglit Birthright participants – posing, preening, and clowning around – all over the mountain. There was a coffee shop ironically named Coffee Anan after the former UN Sec Gen Kofi Annan. And there is Mt Hermon – Israel’s ski resort – without snow.

But you also look directly into Syria and we are told you can hear fighting from Syria from this mountain top. Next to the coffee shop are trenches and other military resources making it clear that this is viewed as part of Israel’s defenses against a potential attack from Syria.

So the question for the day was how does the Golan fit in a quest for peace and security for Israel and her neighbors? Unlike the Palestinians, with their powerful and compelling claims to self-determination, should one really worry that Israel is denying control of the Golan to Bashar Assad? Nothing will change soon and maybe it shouldn’t.

***

We closed 2014 at Kibbutz Hagoshim with wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year to Israel, the Palestinians, and the entire human family.

Day 5 – The Struggle for Justice, Democracy and Shared Society in Israel
Ameinu Journey Day 5 began with Julian presenting the story from “My Promised Land” of the pioneers setting kibbutz Ein Herod and the surrounding valley.

Julian asked us to think about the question of the search for meaning in life and seeking to respond to the “task of the day.” The early pioneers were seeking utopia and meaning and possessed a willingness to accept the costs of loss of the past.

Day 5 was a day to meet many activists continuing to wrestle with these questions.

***

We had a very inspiring visit with members Kibbutz Mishol — the largest urban kibbutz in Israel.  This Irbutz, as they call urban kibbutzim, has 80 adults and 50 kids living together in the middle of Nazareth Illit- a poor community made up of mostly former Soviet Jews with a sizable Arab minority. The kibbutzniks do a wide array of educational programs including kindergartens, after school, evening programs, and dropout prevention.

Just two of the great stories. Their drop out program showed the kids they cared and ended by cutting dropout rate by 60%. Also, The kibbutz evening program gave kids a safe place off the streets and created the only place for Russian Jewish and Arab kids to grow food, make meals, play, and talk together — even about the tragic events of last summer.

It was also interesting to hear the personal stories of the British born kibbutzniks. They are from Habonim Dror who saw a crisis in the movement. My favorite line, describing the disconnect that Kibbutz Mishol seeks to correct, was “I went to Israel for Utopia and found 14,000 chickens.”

Their answer to their personal and movement crisis was to take from the traditional kibbutz and remake it as an intentional secular Jewish community on Israel’s periphery committed to the values of social justice, democracy, freedom, pluralism, and equality. As they reported to us, “at Kibbutz Mishol they were working to help fix the social problems of Israel and live their Judaism in every component of their lives – work, home, family, and community.”

***

For me, one of the high points of the Journey was being blown away by a meeting of with madrichim/counselors of the Noar Oved Velomed youth movement working in the “shared existence program” in the Galilee Arab village of Kfar Manda.

Five young counselors – four Jews and one Arab – explained how they created youth movement activities to engage local Arab youth as well as Jewish youth from the area in shared activity.

While so much was meaningful where we explored the experiences of Arabs in the movement and how progressive Zionists in Israel and North America can best work together, one statement really stands out.

A Jewish counselor said of Zionism: “for me as an Israeli and a Zionist, if there wouldn’t be Arabs in Israel it wouldn’t be the Israel I would want to live in.”

For her and her colleagues it was BECAUSE of Zionism that they were committed to tireless work for Shared Existence.

The Ameinu group left feeling exhilarated and excited to figure out ways to have these wonderful young Israelis meet and educate North American Jewry.  Not only can they be fantastic ambassadors of shared existence between Jews and Arabs, but also of a humane and compelling vision of Zionism.

 

Day 5 ended with dinner and conversation with six urban kibbutz members – Americans and one Brazilian — learning about their work for social justice in Haifa and their personal stories of aliyah and engagement with Israel.  Like the young people in Kfar Manda and Kibbutz Mishol, these new pioneers – like their predecessors from Ein Harod — were living lives in Israel filled with passion and meaning.

Day 6 – Tel Aviv, the Challenge of Israeli Pluralism
Ameinu Israel Journey began Day 6 with a fascinating discussion with scholar Mike Prashker of MERCHAVIM The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.

Many interesting points were raised including a challenge to the notion that Israel is on a downward trajectory of liberalism. Mike made the point that in fact Israel was not founded as a liberal democracy but had made steady progress on pluralism, LGBT rights, disabilities, inclusion of Arab Palestinian Israelis. Many of the conflicts now evident in Israeli society are a result of this progress and expanded expectations it has created.

I took away several key lessons from the discussion.  We should not allow ourselves to wallow in depression over the problems Israel faces.  We should stay engaged with Israel and keep a broad vision of a liberal democracy in mind while working hard to make incremental change for the better.  We should embrace the complexities that are always part of democracy.  And finally, we should challenge liberals who exempt Israel from their liberalism since this is harmful to both Israel and liberalism.
***
The Ameinu Journey next visited The Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. This stop is not to be missed on any trip to Israel.

With great subtlety and aesthetic sensibilities the Center tells the story PM Rabin z”l, Israeli society, and the relation to world history. Through use of advanced video and audio technology the Center brings the stories to life. Here, high tech meets poetry, music, art, photography, and architecture.

And one of the most compelling aspects is the forthright way it weaves in the social tensions and challenges Israel faced throughout Rabin’s life. Ashkenazi-Mizrachi, the Arab refugees of 1948, economic disparities, immigration and absorption, left-right politics, settlements, freedom of speech vs incitement.

***

“So now let’s study”

declared Nir Broide, director and Rosh Yeshiva of BINA the Secular Yeshiva, to the Ameinu Journey delegation.

BINA is at the forefront of teaching and study of Jewish text for all – including secular Jews who often are denied or reject our heritage. And BINA unites text with the struggle for social justice and tikkun olam, and contemporary reality in Israel in a deep and holistic way. This last point is underscored by their presence in South Tel Aviv, the poorest neighborhood beset by numerous social challenges.

Thanks to Nir, Ameinu had a superbly meaningful study session on tractate Baba Kamma Folio 117a – Babylon and Eretz iIsrael – America and Israel.

 

 

Some final thoughts from the Ameinu Journey.

First, it is crucial that we give voice to progressive Zionist Israelis, both sabras and new immigrants, to help explain why Zionism is compelling for them. To hear a young woman from the US say that Zionism is “what she lives every day” as she works tirelessly for Jewish and Arab shared existence is so much more meaningful than 1000 Jewish establishment declarations of how Israel is the core of our Diaspora Jewish existence. Thank you, Adina.

Second, as our guide Julian taught us, question our most dear assumptions. This is a technique for fighting the complacency of traditional Zionism and of the easy answers of Left progressives when thinking about complex questions of identity and social solidarity relating to Israel and Palestine. For me, to be passionately committed to Palestinian freedom and self determination makes sense and I hope all Jews will support this. But does this apply to the Golan and the many violent and chaotic Syrian factions, at least for now?

Third, things are complex. Don’t sugar coat and don’t create boogey men.  We should celebrate the reality that Israel is in the world. The challenge of refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers from the South Tel Aviv neighborhood we visited is an example of a normal global problem that Israel faces. This is not histrionic and metaphysical anti-Semitism; it is a normal problem for successful economies and political systems in the global age. So, we progressive lovers of Israel, both from Israel and the Diaspora, should fight racist and retrograde forces who want to vilify asylum seekers, but understand that this is a case study of Israel and Jews with power being IN the world and we need to rise to the occasion and exert moral power in ways denied us during millennia of dispersal. This is not being done now.

And finally, come to Israel. Find your own place. If you are, like me, a liberal Zionist with young children and an affection for coffee, find you place in Gan Meir.  Finding your place will allow Israel in as a powerful part of your own Judaism.

 

About Gideon Aronoff

Gideon Aronoff is the first Chief Executive Officer of Ameinu. Previously, Aronoff was President and CEO of HIAS, the American Jewish community’s international migration agency, where he oversaw service and advocacy partnerships with over 50 local Jewish communities and global programs in Israel, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Aronoff brings over 25 years of Jewish communal experience — including more than a dozen years in Washington DC — having focused on immigration, refugees, human rights, humanitarian assistance, community relations and government affairs. He also served on the Board of Directors of the National Immigration Forum, the country’s premier immigrant advocacy coalition, and was the chair from 2009 to 2012. He is a member of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey and the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Aronoff is a graduate of Brandeis University and Cornell Law School. He lives in South Orange, NJ, with his wife, Dr. Jaqueline Rogerio, and his young children Dalia and Solomon.
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