My trip with AIPAC ended two days ago. But, I am still here in Israel. I chose to spend time with my brother and the rest of his family in Jerusalem. I wanted to settle into a different kind of lifestyle of Israeli living than the one I had been on from 6am to 9pm every day last week. I have not left the trip behind, however. What I learned and experienced rests comfortably and uncomfortably in my mind.
Israel deals with the challenges and triumphs of security, economic and social equality, and religiosity. This is not a complete list but it has helped me to place some of the issues in perspective. The reason I am grateful and honored to have been part of this journey is that we were exposed to both the challenges and the triumphs without direction from our group leaders on how to interpret. Each of our opinions received great respect even in disagreement.
Every Israeli faces the existential challenge around security. This morning, I was about to go for a long run when the siren went off. (Thank goodness, I had procrastinated and had not left!) I was with Susan, my sister in law, at their home. The dog started to bark in a panic. We all stood in a corner of the room where they had stood numerous times last year. I could feel the disequilibrium of the moment and Susan’s return to what she might have felt like last year. It turned out to be an unexpected drill but for that moment I entered that place of fear with her. Last year, my nephew was in Gaza. This morning, he, newly married, and I had a breakfast of crepes at a new restaurant down the street.
On our trip, we witnessed the close borders of Lebanon and Syria. We stood atop a very tall building in Tel Aviv staring at the stark reality of the dense population, an easy target for destruction. In the building next door, we learned about the vast and advanced defense system Israel has developed to protect herself from short, medium, and long range missiles. I knew about the Iron Dome and became familiar with other systems with names like David’s Sling and Arrow One and Three. I would not dare to underestimate the crucial relationship regarding military matters with the United States. That connection and Israel’s constant work to defend herself strive to meet existential challenges.
In the economic and social equality realms, the underbelly of Israel’s society shows clearly. The disadvantages of Israeli Arabs, the mistreatment of Ethiopians, the lack of acceptance for LGBT, and the great frustrations for many Palestinians at border crossings and in the West Bank are some of Israel’s challenges we learned about. I know there are more. The list is long. In contrast, our spirits were buoyed by the work of Israeli citizens who embody justice and morality in how they are working to improve the economic and social disparities. We met Estelle Bar Ilan whose Ethiopian family arrived in 1984 on Operation Moses. One of 9 children, she is now married with a child of her own. She described the Ethiopian situation as “in no one’s land, not like us, not like them, not being seen as Jewish. It is very hard.” And yet, she was helped by an NGO called Olim Beyachad (Immigrants Together!) formed by other Ethiopian immigrants to help this community get degrees and jobs. People like Amir Ohana and Daniel Jonas are paving smoother paths for the LGBT communities. Amir is an active member of Likud and is working within this conservative party to end discrimination through legislation. He and his husband are also expecting twins from a surrogate in Portland, Oregon next month. Daniel told us his story about growing up in a religious community and suffering with depression as a gay man. He helped to create Hevruta, an organization to support orthodox gay men. They work with Bat Kol that helps orthodox lesbians. We encountered other individuals and organizations that are engaged in inspiring work to repair the difficult breaches of economic and social disparities. Many of these problems seem intractable but the spirit to chip away toward improvement is just as obstinate.
Before I arrived in Jerusalem, one of the Knesset members, David Azoulay, Minister of Religious Services, repulsed the progressive communities in the States by his comments that Reform Jews aren’t really Jews. The reaction was swift and angry toward him. I left the states with demands for his resignation screaming throughout Facebook, in public statements, and in journals and newsletters. Though reprimanded, he is still in office. Netanyahu’s government coalition only has 61 out of 120 members. If they lose him, they lose the majority. It is an unfortunate reason to allow him to stay but then again I learned about another Knesset member whose behavior in other ways is even more egregious and he remains as well. Religious issues plague Israeli society. 25% of engaged couples choose to leave the country rather than have the Chief rabbinate have anything to do with their wedding, let alone their marriage. Marriage, however, is the tip of the iceberg. From our point of view in the diaspora, we see these concerns as paramount. Issues around security and social and economic inequality occupy much more of the Israeli psyche. Even so, it has been heartening to read more articles about small pockets of improvement. The Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College (my rabbinic alma mater) will receive government financial support. An Orthodox rabbi will sit with a Conservative and Reform rabbi on a public panel discussion and examine specific issues together. These are small gigantic steps that matter greatly.
Where do the Palestinians fit in to this matrix? They are an intricate part of each issue. Resolving security, economic and social injustices, and religious differences affect and impact how Israel seeks to live in some kind of purposeful resolution with the Palestinians. There are other additions to the matrix as well. Agriculture and sustainability, the change of status from a developing country to a developed country and its impact on capital (financial) infusion are also part of the complexity of this country. It is a 3D intricate system. Israel’s core needs to be strong. It can’t just have outside pressures to unite it.
I believe in Israel as a country and a people to discover and to renew its own strength and ability. While at times, it feels enervating, this country, with all of its challenges and triumphs, remains energizing to me and I hope to you, too.