I recently returned from Israel with the JCRC Study Tour in Israel for Civic Leaders, where State Senators from the Massachusetts Legislature participated in an in-depth 10-day tour of Israel. Our trip came at a politically salient time for Israel, as an unprecedented third round of elections were being organized. It was a historic moment in Israel’s history, to say the least. Following these events, we framed our learning around the potential consequences. What would a peaceful future for Israel look like under potential new leadership? What were the issues most important to Israeli voters and how were they being mobilized? Who were the citizens and non-citizens that make-up the diverse population of Israel and the Palestinian territories? Throughout the week we received clarity on these issues, and I was privileged to obtain even more insight upon my return.
Crucial to understanding the complexity of Israel were our meetings with grassroots organizations doing people-to-people work between Israelis and Palestinians. It was inspiring for me to be able the visit the NGO’s we work with as part of Boston Partners for Peace and to witness their transformational work firsthand. We toured the Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem and after seeing a kindergarten class perform a song for us in Hebrew and Arabic, we met with Na’ame, an Arab teacher and Guy, a Jewish teacher. Guy shared that "it is my home and the most important part of my life.” Na’ame shared "I am more peaceful with myself when I am in this place."
We then met with participants in Roots, a dialogue program for Israeli Jews living in the West Bank and Palestinians from the West Bank to meet one another. We heard from Hanan Schlesinger, a Jewish settler who said that through this process he was “able to see the humanity on the other side and start a process of healing.” Noor, a Palestinian participant, sees the program as “a way to tackle the social political reality that exists. Both peoples have an identity and there is a need to acknowledge the land belongs to both.” Both organizations offered different approaches to incrementally achieve peace by laying the groundwork through mutual trust and empathy. The people we met with were incredibly genuine and their commitment to their mission was inspiring. While the concept of peace is still being called into question, hearing from people like Hanan and Noor gives me hope that it is possible.
When we returned from the trip, we hosted a Hannukah event with Rula Daoud form the organization “Standing Together.” Rula, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, described the organization as a grassroots alternative to what she sees as the stagnant political left-wing in Israel. Activists from different backgrounds participate in Standing Together’s activities all over the country. It brings Arab citizens and Jews together in support of shared values and joint struggles. Community organizing is a relatively new concept in Israel, and Rula sees it as a way to change and transform society. Most recently, they organized activities to help organize the Arab vote in all elections and legitimize Arab parties. They will be active again leading up to the next Knesset election in March.
Heading into the New Year we have a lot to be hopeful for, but there is still much progress that needs to be made. I was happy to have the chance to meet the activists who refuse to give up hope in the face of challenges. It is crucial we support these organizations in their work in order to further develop Israeli society and ensure it survives into the future. Let’s add this to our resolutions for 2020 and be optimistic about what this new decade will bring.