Israel is a Democratic Jewish state. It is a geographically tiny place, situated in an “undesirable” neighborhood, surrounded by those who wish to see her eradicated.
Israel has embraced within its borders, opened its arms and heart to so many who have had no other place to turn, refugees of all types: the earliest settlers from the late 1800’s, the second wave of settlers from WWII, Yemenite Jews, Moroccan Jews, Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Cambodian “boat people,” Vietnamese refugees, those from Darfur and the southern Sudan who fled from violent African regimes..and so many others. Borders and boundaries often meant nothing.
And now, Israel is once again trying to figure out how to offer safety and security to 60,000 Syrian refugees who are the victim of the civil war in Syria – a place that is now being referred to as “the country that used to be Syria.” Syria, a country that has no relations with Israel. And Israel is trying to find a way to be able to offer safe haven and refuge, despite borders and boundaries. They will do so in a way that addresses all security issues and in a way that addresses the humanitarian issues at stake.
To be a Jew is to recognize that we are all created “B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God” and thus, the Democratic Jewish state often goes out of its way to treat others, no matter their nationality, background or religion with a sense of that humanity, justice, and fairness.
We saw this same attitude at our visit to Hadassah hospital Ein Kerem. Hadassah treats all patients equally, and often treats patients from countries who do not have diplomatic relationships with Israel. But they find a way to come to Hadassah because Hadassah is known for its exemplary medical care, its cutting-edge and innovative technology and the fact that it’s medical team see no boundaries vis-a-vis race, ethnicity, citizenship or religion. Everyone is treated as if they are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.
And yet, despite this, people are people. And as the old joke goes, if two Jews were stranded on a desert Island, they would build three synagogues: one for each of them, and one that neither would attend. Israel is no different.
Everywhere we went, we were witness to emotional, physical and other types of barriers, boundaries, borders and walls that cause tension and stress among different groups of Jews, that exacerbate relationships between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and that fans the flame of anger that prevent dialogue toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is in these areas that we see the concept of “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God” falling to the wayside. Here, we witness the concept of fundamentalism: the notion of “only my way is correct, and your way is wrong, and therefore, you are evil.” No matter if the issue involves Jew vs Jew, or Jew vs Arab, when we treat someone like they are “other,” we forget that they too, are human.
In Israel, there is no such thing as religious pluralism. The Orthodox control all matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, conversion, burial). Orthodox synagogues are built by the government and Orthodox rabbis’ salaries are paid for by the government. Not so for any other Jewish denomination. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews need to fight for their land, fight to have their rabbis’ rights recognized, fight for everything they receive.
We spent time with three different Reform congregations (Congregation Yozma in Modi’in, Yedid Nefesh Congregation in Carmiel and Kol Haneshama Congregation in Jerusalem) praying together, eating together, studying together. We prayed at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and studied with Rabbi Michael Marmur, the Provost of HUC, and we spent time at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, learning about the Israel Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and some of the causes they address. We heard about the boundaries, borders and walls that the Reform Movement in Israel has to face daily.
Yet, they are constantly making progress and gaining strides. The Reform Movement has ordained over 100+ Israeli-born rabbis in its Israel rabbinical program. They celebrate the B’nai Mitzvah of over 800 students every year and hundreds of weddings. 1000’s of people attend Reform congregations for study and prayer during holiday times. The Legal Aid Center for New Immigrants has assisted hundreds of new immigrants gratis with legal aid. And Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is the leading voice of “Women of the Wall” pressing for egalitarian participation for all at one of Jerusalem’s holiest spots. Yes – there is more than one way to be “religious” – and the Israeli Reform Movement is living proof that liberal Judaism is a viable option.
While some of our group went to Masada and the Dead Sea, some of us visited Hebron, in the West Bank with the NGO “Breaking the Silence.”
Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by a group of former ID veterans, many of them coming from religious backgrounds. They felt that the Torah and Jewish values were diametrically opposed to what was taking place in Hebron. They felt the lack of people being treated “b’tzelem Elohim” called for action.
Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement in its center. And this settlement happens to be comprised of ideological settlers who believe that all of the West Bank should be “Arab-free.” These settlers will forcibly remove Arabs from their places of business and homes and take illegal possession of them. They defy the laws of the army and the police. They all carry weapons.
For years, the army has implemented a policy of separation and discrimination between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian majority. The army is charged with protecting the settlers (and at times, the Palestinians who are often attacked by the settlers). The army severely restricts the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents, which has led to the destruction of the main commerce area and to the mass abandonment of the area by the residents who could afford to flee. Hundreds of shops have closed, thousands of people have been left without a livelihood and many people have been forced to leave their homes. The city center has become a ghost town, where only Jews are allowed to move about freely (Palestinians are not allowed to drive on the streets, or be on the streets at certain times). Hunger and poverty are rampant. The UN is providing children with soup and buckets for soup at lunch-time, often the only meal that is available that day.
The fanatic Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims during Ramadan many years ago while they were praying in the mosque at the Cave of Machpelah, was part of this group of settlers.
They promote an ideology of hatred based on a fundamental belief that walls, barriers and boundaries that push out and separate will be beneficial to them. They teach that the “other” is not human and is not worthy of being treated as such.
At the same time, there exist many good Israelis who are trying to teach about what is happening in Hebron and change the conversation. The goal is to change the policies of what happens in Hebron, and hopefully one day to end the occupation. People cannot live autonomously if they are living under occupation.
We also spent one afternoon just north of the West Bank, in Israel, with Sikkuy: For Civic Equality for Arab Israelis. Sikkuy has two main goals: The first goal is how to close the economic gaps that exist in the Arab Israeli neighborhoods. The Arab Israeli neighborhoods receive much less government support than the Jewish Israeli neighborhoods. This affects the public education system, water access, garbage pickup, electricity and all public works, roadways, public transportation, etc. The second goal is how to build a shared society. Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis have very little contact with each other, very little opportunity for dialogue and discussion.
There are 1.4 million Arab citizens in Israel (approximately 17% of Israeli citizens are Arab; less than 200,00 are Christians).
Due to the large economic gaps in the system, the Arab Israeli population is extremely disadvantaged. The only engine of growth over the next 20 years for the economy is the integration of the Arab Israeli citizens and the Haredim into society. The Haredim are ambivalent. The Arabs do want to participate but there are barriers.
Often, the Arabs are seen as a security threat, they often have a difficult time finding jobs – even with advanced university degrees.
We spent time with Asala Mahajna and her father, Kasam, originally from the largest Israeli Arab town of Um El Fahm. We heard and witnessed how the town’s growth was impeded by some of the economic issues. We heard about Asala’s hopes and dreams and concerns for the future.
We learned how Sikkuy, with it’s Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli co-directors work together with other organizations to break down barriers, tear down walls and build bridges that will lead to new avenues of openness and better living. Perhaps, one of the most exciting ventures we learned about was a set of seven schools called: “Hand in Hand.” Founded by Shuli Dichter (former Director of Sikkuy). Shuli is breaking down barriers and walls with these schools that provide education for both Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli school children. They bring together the parents for discussion and dialogue. “The old shall dream dreams, but the youth shall have visions.”
We spent time up on the Golan Heights at the Syrian border, getting a security briefing on what was happening with the “country formerly known as Syria” from (Retired) Col. Kobi Marom.
And we had a fascinating tour and lecture of the security wall around the West Bank with Prof. Paul Liptz.
We walked around the walls of the Old City, the walls that separated the Old City from the New, the walls that separated the Jewish Quarter from the Christian Quarter, from the Armenian Quarter from the Muslim Quarter.
We even saw a sign on a wall that said: “Americans go home. You’re not welcome here.”
Yes, Israel is a complex place.
We pray that one day, there will be no need for the walls, the barriers will come down and all people will remember to treat each other “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the Image of God.