Interfaith Trip To Israel_Day Four

There was a time in my life when I was powerfully attracted by the possibility of living on a kibbutz. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Israel working on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country called Beit HaShitah. I fell in love with the place and the way of life. Something about the idea of working as part of a community toward a shared goal, of living outdoors and doing physical work, of breaking free from the individualistic capitalist lifestyle that the socialist-anarchist in me rejected. It felt ego-less, humble and simple; a sort of modern monastic life. I was religious at the time so I imagined my life on a religious kibbutz would be split between praying to my God and tending the earth. What better combo? I also imagined I would probably join one of the kibbutzim by the Dead Sea in the middle of the desert as I always loved being there.

Obviously I never made it happen. It remained an unfulfilled desire that I filed under “Idealistic Aspirations of Youth” in one of the drawers of my life story. Today, as we toured Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu on the bank of the Jordan river a few hundred yards north of the border with Autonomous Palestine, that desire got reactivated. Maybe this time, however, because of the turmoil in our world today, this was more about escapism than idealism. A part of me dreamt again, for a moment, of disconnecting from everything and returning to a simpler way of being. After all, it used to be that if you lived on a kibbutz, all your basic needs were taken care of. You didn’t own anything as everything belonged to the community, but you didn’t have to worry about anything either. In the first few minutes of walking through this kibbutz today that felt really right and enticing. Who needs to go back to “civilization” and why would anyone want to be a part of it? Beni, the Kibbutz member that was assigned to be our guide, showed us how over the last couple of decades, Sde Eliyahu had become the leader in Israel in organic farming through one of their promotional movies. It sounded particularly good and tempting.

I think it is healthy, from time to time, to question the decisions we have made, the life we have chosen. Often it is when we travel, when we are given the opportunity to come into contact with other ways of living and hold those as against our own, that we can step outside of ourselves and look at our own life, that we can play the compare-and-contrast game and imagine what our life might have been if we had made different choices. It is healthy as well because being exposed to other possibilities of defining how a human life may be lived in the short amount of time we are all given on this earth, helps us question the definition our society has given us and by which, consciously and unconsciously, we live. In our case we might still choose the American way of life, yet if we do, we might do it with greater awareness. I wouldn’t choose, today, the life of a kibbutznik. Though I still find many parts of it attractive and a part of me would have no problem with rejecting civilization in order to live as a farmer/meditator recluse, my life path lays elsewhere. I am grateful for the chance today has given me to touch again this part of self that, unless placed in this kind of context, doesn’t get activated. It is good to spend time sitting together with this other part of me, my inner monk.

Tomorrow we climb Masada. And that’s altogether another metaphor for our lives.

Interfaith Trip to Israel_Day Three

How do we heal our world? How do we move past what divides us to create, together, a tomorrow that will be richer because of the pain of yesterday? How do we stand strong for what we believe in without demonizing those others who stand strong for what they believe in? Yes, I am talking about the US Presidential elections and, yes, I am talking about Israel. Because the Israeli-Palestinian experience has something to teach us, Americans, about moving forward. We could go one direction—as Israeli and Palestinian governments have done—that of separation, that of “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and move the two sides of the country further and further apart until all possibility of communication breaks down and all that’s left is violence and death. Or we could go a different direction—as some small minorities within Israel-Palestine still are—and choose healing and reconciliation, understanding and compassion. Today we met those who refuse to accept as fait-accompli the polarization of peoples meant to share the same land. Today we humbly learned at the feet of Jews and Palestinians alike, how to move forward back home. Today, among others working toward peace on the ground, we met Dr. Hassan Agbaria, the principal of a bilingual Arab-Jewish school named “Bridge Over The Wadi,” in the Arab village of Kafar Qaba. He is my new hero (and I never use the word hero lightly).

In his school, hundreds of children, pre-K through 12th grade, Jews and Arabs learn together in both languages; Hebrew and Arabic. Instead of simply opting for their local Israeli public school, families from the nearby Jewish village of Katzir, choose every day to drive their children to this Arab village so that they can benefit from a bilingual education and be raised to learn tolerance in an integrated community. Every day, Muslim families of this and other villages around, defy their own society and its norms, and choose to drive their kids to this school as well. Each classroom in every grade has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew, one who teaches in Arabic. Teachers are all women. This was a deliberate choice of Principal Hassan in part because he believes women were better conveyers of the school’s vision, in part because having working Arab women also creates change back in their own communities. We arrived at the school right at noon and, as it probably was lunch break, dozens of kids were running around in the courtyard some playing soccer, some playing “marching band” and banging on improvised drums. Girls and boys of all ages, Muslims and Jews playing together. One of the Jewish ten year olds was asked to say a few words to us because he was known to speak some English. His name was Lior. We asked him how many Jews and how many Muslims were in his class. He had no idea. The thought never occurred to him to look at his classmates that he had known since he was three in this kind of way. Next to us, two girls who must have been the same age as Lior, one Jewish one Muslim, were talking to each other as best friends do sitting side by side and interlacing their legs and giggling together. It was so simple, it was so normal, it made me cry. I asked Principal Hussan how they choose their curriculum, especially around teaching history, knowing full well that there is no shared historical narrative between Palestinians and Israelis. Each side sees what has happened over the years in a radically different way than their counterpart. Dr. Agbaria used an apt example since we just had been at the Independence Hall Museum in Tel Aviv, that of Israel’s Independence Day. Each year, May 14th, toward the end of the school year, comes the marking of a day that the Palestinians call “Nekba – The Catastrophe.” Principal Hussan told us that they are not there to try and manufacture a third historical narrative that would retell a modified story and smooth over the difficult parts. Instead they see their mission as being about teaching both opposing narratives, exactly as each side tells it, to all the kids. They teach kids, from the youngest age, to recognize the truth in each competing and contradicting story, to see that each perspective is right however partial and limited to only one side. These kids learn to listen to each other’s story, to appreciate multiple points of view, to hear the pain and recognize the fear behind them from the youngest age; and we, adult citizens of the supposed greatest civilization that ever ruled the earth can’t even do that between Americans who, for the most part, don’t have language and religion as an obstacle.

Principal Hussan holds a vision as his guiding principle. His vision to which he dedicates every minute of every hour of his life, is a vision of peace, mutual recognition and understanding. In an area of the world where the overwhelming majority perceives such a vision as a threat, Principal Hussan is risking his life to give these children the chance to live a different dream. There are now six such bilingual schools in Israel that follow this model. “Bridge over the Wadi,” however, is the only school in a 100% Arab village. Beyond the world-changing model that these centers of education promote, there are dozens of other such programs and organization working on the ground, and in spite of their government, to make peace with their neighbors. Israel is changing, a new dawn of possibility is here. And this is exciting for Israel-Palestine.

But what about us? What is our vision for our country? Can we learn from this experience and stand, with love in our heart and an invitation on our lips, for such a vision without rejecting or demonizing those who think otherwise? Can we act today to manifest our vision for tomorrow? Can we take a firm stand in support of that vision and move from a center of love, understanding and compassion, to counter the forces of exclusion and division?

We have much to learn from this growing grassroots movement toward peace, blossoming in Israel, and, for once, though they may be a thousand setbacks and many dark days ahead, there may be cause for optimism. And I’ll take optimism over bloodshed anytime.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016_Day One

Is it possible?

After spending time in Tel Aviv this morning both at the Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s existence, and walking through the artists’ market of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Suk; we drove north to the Galilee and spent time visiting a couple churches in Nazareth each claiming to be the spot of the Annunciation where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she soon would become pregnant. We learned that there are two churches because of two competing stories. One had Mary at her home, the other at the village’s well drawing water when Gabriel appeared. Both churches, in their own way, are magnificent designs of inspired sacred space. Time and again I find myself drawn into the silence that places such as these are able to evoke in me.

Nazareth is known to be the capital of the Galilee. Eight percent of this region of Israel is Arab-populated and predominantly Muslim but with a strong Christian minority as well. Nazareth itself is one hundred percent Arab-Israeli with roughly 60,000 Muslims and 20, 000 Christians. Some years ago, Israeli Jews started building a little village the next hill over that they named Upper Nazareth. Attracted by the modernity of the new constructions, Arab-Israelis from Nazareth started buying homes in Upper Nazareth and constitute now 20-30% of the new village’s population. It is predicted that, within a generation, it will soon become an Arab-majority village with Arabs living side by side with Jews.

So I asked myself, is it possible? One of the main arguments that I have heard from the political right in Israel that opposes the peace process is the fear that Palestinians’ only goal—despite their claim to the contrary—is, ultimately, the destruction of Israel. That we can’t trust them with a peace agreement they will never honor; that Israel needs to fortify its defenses, keep building a separation wall, impose strict checkpoints to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, and maintain a military presence inside Palestinian towns, villages and territories. But these 80,000 Muslims and Christians of Nazareth don’t have a security wall surrounding them, don’t have checkpoints that restricts their movement in Israel whatsoever, and have no Israeli military presence in their streets. Yet with complete and unrestricted access to any place in Israel, I can’t remember a time when any Arab resident of Nazareth ever perpetrated a terrorist act against Jews. Even though, as full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel, they are still a discriminated-against minority (as minorities seem to be the world over) which could justify them having a bone of contention against Israeli Jews; without mentioning the legitimate anger and resentment toward Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.

It seems to me that the example of decades of peaceful cohabitation within Israel between Israeli-Jews and Arab-Israeli could serve as a tangible example of success and something to point to as a more probable outcome of a negotiated peace agreement between the two people. I understand that there are many complex layers of this conflict that a short blog post that is necessarily limited cannot address. There are legitimate concerns coming from all sides of the political spectrum both in Israel and in Palestine. Yet, to me, the security fear-based argument from Israel’s political right I mentioned above, though understandable, may not be as iron-clad that it purports to be. I don’t think that Israel is really afraid of what a potential fledgling Palestinian State could do. The balance of military power is overwhelmingly on Israel’s side, and a disarmed Palestinian State could be a negotiated condition for independence. Looking at the Nazareth example; given the chance to live peacefully and freely in a democratic context, it appears as though—like other peoples the world over—that the Palestinians would chose to contribute, respect and be part of such democratic nation-building. The narrative one chooses, the example one points to, affects one’s vision about what could be. After today, I am growing more convinced that Nazareth more than Gaza, is a true representation of the future of Israel/Palestine where Jews and non-Jews have already lived together in peace side by side for decades. And as it has happened within the Israeli State borders, so could it happen within the boundaries of a Palestinian State as well. And though I reject Gaza and the violent aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, I choose Nazareth. Like we heard this morning at Independence Hall: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But that is the problem, isn’t it?

Interfaith Israel Trip 2016 _Arrival Day

Tel Aviv, Israel; November 17, 2016

What a miracle! I am re-reading these first few words—the date and the place where I am writing from—and I am moved by a sense of awe. Don’t get me wrong, my zealous Zionist years are far behind me. As an Israeli citizen, I have found myself highly critical of Israel’s current government and, at the same time, concerned with the world’s criticizing of Israel indiscriminately, as if all Israelis supported this government’s policies and actions. What would we say if other people painted Americans as being all Obama-supporters or, starting January 20th all Trump-policies supporters? But disagreeing with one’s government doesn’t make one a traitor or an anti-American/Israel; doesn’t cause one to go burn the flag tomorrow. Often the opposite is true. We are highly critical and work to hold our government accountable to fulfilling our country’s vision because we care; because we know ourselves to be part of a human evolution project bigger than ourselves; bigger than any one nation.

Walking with our group through the streets of Tel Aviv to and from our first group dinner at Magenda, a local and oh-so-delicious Israeli restaurant, I was moved by seeing the Israeli flag wave in the wind. That reaction surprised me. I pointed out to my son Lior who was walking by my side of the miracle that such a flag existed, that Tel Aviv existed, that Israel existed. That a flag with a Jewish star painted on it could symbolize the existence of a place of refuge for all Jews of the world—a safe haven from the dangers of living at the mercy of the next rise of an anti-Semitic wave in whatever country we currently find ourselves—is an absolute miracle.

And though we might disagree with the current Israeli government policies, though we may be aware that for too many non-Jewish minorities in this land this flag represents oppression and evil, we simply cannot abandon Israel and what it was founded to stand for. When it comes to the Israeli project, still in its infancy when compared to America’s or the European nations’ for example, the phrase from the Talmud’s Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” comes to mind: “Lo Aleicha HaM’lacha Ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah – It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from contributing to it altogether.”

Perhaps this interfaith tour of Israel might give us a new way to think not only about the unfolding of the Israeli narrative and project but give us clues as to how we can move forward together as an American nation as well. I am looking forward to the journey ahead.