Day one of the JCPA Israel Mission 2016 started with lectures at our hotel. At 8:00 a.m we began with David Denker, Senior Associate of the Government Relations Israel Office of JFNA who advised mission members to remember that Jews in the world today are better off than at any point for 3000 years and not to over-exaggerate the threat posed by BDS. He urged attendees to think about Israel beyond “the dates of wars,” and insisted that the 50th celebrations approaching in 2017 would be a time of “pride” and “strength” for the country.
JCPA President David Bernstein urged attendees to remember three critical issues throughout the mission.
- Political/security challenges, and our role
- Social internal challenges facing Israel, and our role
- Your personal relationship to Israel
Next up we heard from Vice Admiral (ret.) David Ben-Bashat, who promoted his nonpartisan vision of a “Security First” approach to the two-state solution. The basic assumptions and premises of “Security First” are:
- A two-state solution is the only way for Israel to remain Jewish and Democratic
- Good fences make good neighbors, and the physical separation of Israelis and Palestinians is a good thing
- The current stagnation or “freeze” in dialogue between the two sides is harmful for Israel
- Better living conditions of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians is essential
“Wasting time is a disaster for us and for them,” said Ben-Bashat.
Next, JCPA heard from Jonathan Shrier about the unique and productive economic relationship between Israel and the United States. A few key points:
1. Bilateral trade between Israel and USA is now $49 billion per year
- the USA signed its first free trade agreement with Israel in 1985
- Trade between the USA and Israel is constantly moving into new territory (such as the recent importation of Israel-approved Kosher beef)
- Israel regularly hosts a parade of U.S. Congressional delegations in addition to many more smaller ones from the state-level.
At midday, our mission visited with Mr. Eli Nechama, principal of the Bialik Rogozin school, a facility dedicated to educating the children of refugees and migrants in Israel. The school boasts more than 1000 students from over 50 nations and has been highly successful in integrating students into the larger Israeli society. The school was featured in the Academy Award winning 2011 documentary “Strangers No More” and now serves as a model for European countries in the midst of their own refugee crisis.
For lunch, the JCPA Leadership Mission embarked to the Ethiopian restaurant Gojo for a taste of African Jewish cuisine and a panel discussion with the Ethiopian National Project and Ethiopian-Israeli Community Leaders.
Speakers for the event included
- Roni Akele,Director-General for ENP for leadership, empowerment and activism
- Naphtali Aklum, a young community leader
- Rachamin Elazar, a radio news announcer
- Abuye Abera, a local lay leader and teacher
Each speaker spoke about their life story and how the larger Ethiopian-Jewish community was faring in Israel. There is still a great degree of societal prejudice toward Ethiopians, with many Ethiopian Jews facing income inequality and stigma in the wider society. They spoke about their efforts to build coalitions and a better political network to enact the changes they needed to make.
“I wanted to say I was Jewish, but I was nervous because I had never spoken to a white person,” said Elazar, recalling one moment.
Next up was a trip to Tel Aviv University to take a walk through Jewish history and the history of the Jewish diaspora. Exhibits included an exploration of historic synagogues, the life and work of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan and stories from Israel’s immigrant community.
After stopping at the hotel to catch our breath — or sneak out for some shopping — our day concluded with a leisurely dinner at Loliyiot, a high end restaurant which employees and trains at-risk Israeli youth in the restaurant business. Over lamb, chicken, meatballs, and salad, mission members also heard from Ms. Michal Yudin and Efrat Yehudai. Yudin is the chairwoman of the non-profit, WePower, a nonpartisan interest group that strives to increase the gender diversity of Israel’s government.
“There is no way we can have social change without women at the table,” said Yudin who added the other following goals.
- Train women to run for office regardless of party
- Reach goal of 60 female members of the Knesset
- Activate untapped political and organizational power of Israeli women
Day 2 of the JCPA Israel Mission 2016, by far, covered the most ground geographically, beginning in Tel Aviv, moving onto Safed and then finally concluding in Jerusalem.
Beginning early, Mission members hit the road for Safed, to the city’s celebrated Ziv hospital. The medical facility has been treating Syrians injured in the civil war since 2013. Most suffer blast wounds from mines or rocket fire. The hospital is almost entirely funded by the Israeli government — The United Nations gives nothing.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, an estimated 350,000 have been killed, 1.7 million have been injured and the nation’s health system has been left in ruins. Three million have fled to other countries and more than seven million have been internally displaced.
We spoke with Dr. Michael Harari who is the lead doctor working with the Syrians. More than 700 have been treated at Ziv since 2013. Many, if not most, of the cases would otherwise have been lost causes. It costs roughly $5 million to treat the Syrian population. In addition to all that, services are also expanding to treat chronic conditions and mental health. After successful treatment, the Syrians return to their homeland.
The participants also spoke with Fares Issa, the Arab social worker who assists patients. Most of them can’t communicate, and have no clothes. We had the opportunity to walk through the area where Syrians were recovering and say hello. Many are lonely.
“Blast injurious are awful,” Ziv physician, Dr. Michael Harari, told JCPA mission members. “Recognizing the human hand behind them has been difficult to come to grips with.”
For more information about Ziv, click the links below
Next up was a ride to the Upper Galilee home of Gadi Elias for lunch and met with an Israeli military expert in the Golan who shared stories about Israel’s humanitarian and medical assistance provided to Syrian civilians. He explained how the army came to its strategic decision to help those who are severely injured at its border.
We next traveled to the Golan Heights. We saw how close the border is to Israel and why Israel is in constant alert. Many times people, when visiting the Golan Heights, have witnessed bombing and shootings.
3.5 hours later, the JCPA Leadership Mission arrived in the holy city of Jerusalem where we checked into the Mt. Zion hotel.
Day 3 took JCPA Israel Mission 2016 out of our comfort zones and into the West Bank. Our guide for the area was Gal Berger, a journalist with Israeli Public Radio. Berger has spent years covering the Palestinian territories and provided an insider context. Berger said that Abbas was not strong enough to cut any real deal with the Israelis, characterizing Israel’s choice as paying twice for the same deal (once to Fatah in West Bank and another to Hamas in Gaza). Berger said despite Fatah elections reaffirming his authority, Abbas was very weak in the West Bank and a general election between him and Hamas would be very close. Despite popular opinion, Berger suggested that Hamas would be better to work with than Fatah, noting that the latter has spearheaded years of failed negotiations. Berger, meanwhile, called Hamas leadership “practical.” Berger suggested that in interviews Palestinian leaders were often two-faced about their intentions toward each other, noting that a unity government between the two sides would never be sustainable. On checkpoints in the West Bank, Berger said the number had decreased substantially. Today, more than half of the population of the West Bank is under the age of 24.
First up was a visit to the planned upscale, modern (western modeled) city of Rawabi. The municipality is being developed from the ground up to serve as a model middle class Palestinian community. It is self-contained with modern schools, restaurants, shops, movie theaters, concert arenas, and a fun park. Besides Ramallah, there are no other places with entertainment or brand shopping in the West Bank. It aims to employ 5,000 people.
From Rawabi, Mission members traveled to Ramallah, the current capital of the Palestinian territories, for talks with Saeb Erekat, Fatah’s chief negotiator and co-architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Erekat met JCPA Mission members at the Movenpick Hotel in Ramallah.
In his remarks, Erekat spoke about his view of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and candidly relayed his belief that Israel was guilty of “racism” and “apartheid” toward the Palestinian people. He denied using the word “genocide” in past statements despite evidence to the contrary.
A number of key points Erekat touched on:
Israel and Palestinians should unite to defeat ISIS and extremism, Arabs need Democracy and critics who make claims that they “are not ready” are “racist,” West Bank unemployment was 26% and unsustainable, and Arab leaders have acted with “cowardice” in confronting Muslim extremism. Ideas don’t need a passport. Palestinians have a high rate of education, but not many opportunities for employment.
Erekat reaffirmed his support for a peaceful two state solution along the 1967 borders and warned that there were essentially just two remaining endpoints to the Palestinian dilemma.
- Two states living side by side in peace
- One state “reality” which he called “apartheid”
He said he would recognize a state called Israel and that however Israel wants to define itself is up to Israel, adding that he shouldn’t be held to a negotiation standard that is unprecedented and that it was an internal issue for Israel.
“I don’t want my sons and grandkids to be suicide bombers”
Erekat took a number of questions from the audience: Among the highlights.
- Erekat defended his refusal to explicitly recognize the Jewish character of Israel. He did share that he has nothing against the Jewish religion and Jews and Arabs have always lived side by side historically.
- Erekat admitted that if he were Israel, he would not settle for peace without a guarantees of “end of conflict” and “end of claims.”
- Majority of Palestinian population is in their 13-20s and their potential should not be squandered
- Palestinians followed the U.S. election with great interest and reminded audience that 99% of the people fighting ISIS and being killed by ISIS were Sunni Muslims.
After Mr. Erekat’s departure, JCPA Mission members ate lunch and heard a presentation from a Dr. Nader Said-Foqahaa, a Palestinian pollster. Some of the major findings were as follows:
- 70% of Palestinians say things are moving in the “wrong direction”
- 48% of Palestinians are “optimistic” about the future
- Youth are less inclined to be positive
- 34% of youth in Gaza say their property has been exposed or damaged by Israelis
- 22% of young people say they have been arrested or detained in the West Bank
- 50% of Palestinians cited “cost of living” as their chief concern, only 30% the “occupation”
- 74% of Palestinians said they would favor dissolving the PLO if the occupation ended.
- 83% of Palestinians said that full general elections were important
- A majority of Palestinians do not believe armed attacks would benefit them
- 10.49% of Palestinians say that a two-state solution is “a good idea”
Dr. Said-Foqahaa’s assistant, Nick Hyman, graduated from Clark University 2013. Hyman, a Jew, has been living in Ramallah for more than three years.
After leaving Movenpick, Mission members proceeded onto the seat of Israeli government, The Knesset, for talks with MK members, Yair Lapid and Michael Oren. During our time there, the Knesset debated a bill that would weaken the Israeli Supreme Court’s power of judicial review over settlement construction.
Some key points from Lapid
- International peace plans have collapsed.
- Israel should negotiate hard now from what he said was a “position of strength”
- He was genuinely concerned about American Jews, noting that “Young Jews now are not just falling away, but they are going to lead the attack” against Israel
- Bilateral talks are a waste of time. “tired people saying the same thing.” Lapid instead called for regional negotiations involving Egypt, Jordan and others.
- Ethiopian Jews don’t have the numbers to create a sufficiently powerful political base. But they need to.
- Iran deal was a bad deal, but uprooting now would be a “mistake” as it would only take the U.S. out and leave Europe and Asia to continue to enrich the Iranian regime without the good parts of the deal being in force.
- Lapid was adamant in his support of Egalitarian Prayer and said if he were Prime Minister, the issue would be resolved immediately.
Some key points from Oren
- Oren began with the controversy surrounding the Amona Settlementsaying that he supported efforts to protect to prerogative of the Israeli Supreme Court to decide the issue.
- Oren cited “the breakdown of civility” as a major reason for the 2016 US election.
- Oren defended the 1967 war (which he has written about extensively) saying that many of the positive developments which have come to Israel (and the Palestinians) since has been a direct result of the conflict. Oren said these results included peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and a more stable Middle East over all.
- Oren said BDS was a problem on college campuses but apathy was worse.
- Oren rejected far right embraces of Israel that came at expense of Muslims.
- Oren also expressed his support for Egalitarian Prayer but, unlike Lapid, said it was politically impossible and it was not going to be his hill to die on. Oren said Lapid would never be able to form a government without Haredi parties.
“If you love Israel because you hate Muslims, we don’t want your love,” Oren told Mission members.
Unfortunately we were not able to meet with MK Michaeli who had to be called away to lead strategy in Amona vote.
Day 4 of JCPA Israel Mission 2016 dove deep into the domestic affairs of Israel’s civil society. Together, we wrestled with big questions and heard presentations by Jewish advocates, experts in Jewish democracy, high officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and drank tea with the leadership of Israel’s Catholic and Lutheran communities.
First up was former Israeli National Security adviser, Dr. Uzi Arad. Dr. Arad painted a frank picture of a number of the domestic challenges facing Israel today. The key thrust of Dr. Arad’s discussion centered on his belief that Israel’s greatest challenges were not external but internal. Dr. Arad chaired a group known as “The Grand Strategy Group” which aimed to answer the question of whether Israel had any existential threats.
The findings identified four key issues:
- Growing income inequality
- Losing Israel’s traditional qualitative advantage
- An “ossified” and underperforming executive branch
- Growing disrespect for rule of law in Israeli society
“Nothing destroyed our society more than ineffective government,” he told mission members.
Dr. Arad said among nations in the world Israel ranked in the top 10 only in military power. In many other aspects, the society was stuck in the 20th, 30th or even lower.
Purchasing power/GDP: 33
“Good” nations of the world: 41
Friendly to foreign investment: 53
Next, mission members heard from:
Rebecca “Becky” Caspi: Executive Director, JFNA-Israel Office, Senior Vice President, Israel and Overseas
Carole Nuriel: Senior Middle Eastern Affairs Analyst for ADL
Hamutal Gouri: the Director of the Dafna Fund of NCJW.
JFNA in Israel in the “help line for the entire federation system” and that communities often reach out to them for things which are beyond their reach. It represents JFNA in Israel, maintains the relationships, quietly advocates for diaspora concerns and has deep connections within Israeli civil society. Her office makes the case for engagement with Israel. More needs to be done to make North American communities engaged with on the ground work in Israel. She also suggested that Hebrew language resources for what the American community was doing were lacking.
Nuriel said the ADL presence in Israel was important in ensuring that Israelis had a voice in the organization. Nuriel cited the ADL’s proximity to crisis as a major component in its decision to open and keep an office. Effective leadership requires on the ground infrastructure in place before it is necessary. It cannot be done ad hoc or on the fly.
“We were effective on September 12 because we were here on September 10,” she told us.
Gouri agreed with numerous points from the previous two women and her remarks mostly centered on what she said were the failure of pluralistic political parties. The issue was important not just for egalitarian prayer, but also political parties banning women from running for office. She also announced a new project looking at the achievements of Israel women over the last 15 years.
“As long as there is any woman in this country prevented from running for office because of her gender, I am not free,” she told mission members.
Next mission members traveled to the Israeli Democracy Institute for a discussion of how and if the state of Israel could remain both Jewish and Democratic in the coming years. Members heard from a panel which included
Shuki Friedman: Director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State
Jesse Ferris: Vice President of Strategy, The Israel Democracy Institute
Orly Erez-Likhovski: Acting Director of the legal department of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Reform Movement in Israel.
Israeli society has become increasingly less empathetic to other points of view. He said when Israelis were asked whether the Jewish and Democratic aspects of Israel were in the right balance or unduly tilted one way or the other the results were stark and shifted significantly across religious lines, with Haredi and ultraorthodox Israeli overwhelming thinking Israel was too democratic and conservative and secular jews thinking Israel was too religious. These trends held constant across a number of metrics and questions asked about religion and pluralism in Israel. Today Haredi/UltraOrthodox represent roughly 10% of the country but 25% of schoolchildren. Friedman warned that Haredi increasingly say they would respect Halachic over civil law if forced to choose.
Israel doesn’t have a Constitution, Ben Gurion knew it would be impossible to reconcile a number of issues into such a document, including:
- Personal studies
- Shabbat Services
- Affiliation of States
Israel’s legal system does not entrench pluralism but such pluralism is “glorified” in the nation’s Declaration of Independence.
There isn’t a Hebrew word for pluralism. Another big issue is the matter of conversion, specifically relevant for Conservative and Reform marriages. Roughly 300 to 400 people convert to reform or conservative Judaism every year. Over time, activists have managed to crack open government services for religious denominations other than the Orthodox and Haredi. Egalitarian prayer deal was reached after years of negotiations but ultraorthodox pulled out at last minutes and now Netanyahu is stalling. She suggested that the struggle for pluralism in Israel was very much a two steps forward, one step backward dance. Religious obstructionism can only occur if the public is apathetic. In addition, use of public mikvahs is also a growing issue.
Both individuals spoke about the Supreme Court and Amona issues and expressed concern about the undermining of Judicial Review.
After a light lunch at IDI, mission members ventured to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).
First up was a conversation with General Akiva Tor, Head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, who painted a broad picture of Israel’s domestic and international situation. He noted that Israel today was surrounded by failed states or states teetering on the brink of failure. The situation in the the West Bank was precarious due to Mahmoud Abass’ age and relative weakness outside his own narrow base of power. He suggested that both Israelis and Palestinians were united in keeping ISIS and comparable extremism out of the country. Tor also expressed his fear over European Jewry which he said may not fare well under the rise of far right parties. in the USA, he suggested that a Trump-Netanyahu relationship could drive Democrats away from Israel and force Democratic Jews into a choice between Israel and all of their other values. Tor also spoke of his fear that young evangelical Christians might defect from traditional evangelical support for Israel.
Tor invited mission members to share their concerns and grievances with him. Overall, concerns included:
- Challenge of strengthening JCRCS, especially in smaller communities like Delaware
- Dealing with Liberal/Reconstructionist/Pro BDS Jews in USA
- Resources for Israel education at school
Next up mission members heard from Ministry Senior Advisor Shlomi Kofman. Kofman’s main points centered on Israel’s economic position domestically and in the world at large. He said that the best Israeli companies all have offices in the United States and that the bilateral relationship between the USA and Israel was perfect.
“This is an issue there is no issue about. It’s all positive,” he told mission members.
Kofman said roughly 10 U.S. governors come to Israel each year for trade missions and that the future prospects for U.S Israel economic cooperation were robust. Kofman also spent much time talking about social media and ways he felt it should be censored to prevent fake or misleading content.
Turning to the issue of freedom of religion in Israel, mission members heard from Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. Rosen offered a brief introduction of the Christian community in Israel, ecclesiastical distinctions and how they related to their Jewish communities.
- Israel’s Christians live in two main places, the Galilee and West Bank areas like Bethlehem and Jericho. Christians in the Galilee were very pro-Israel while those living in the West Bank tended to be more sympathetic to Palestinian concerns.
- Catholics tend to favor Israel more, as the Vatican has diplomatic relations with the country. Lutherans and other protestants were cooler and this attitude is also reflected in U.S. protestant population as well.
JCPA Mission members headed to the Latin Patriarchate for coffee with Latin Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and Lutheran community leader Right Rev. Bishop Munib Younan.
The site of Jerusalem and holy lands were a focal point for all Roman Catholics and Christians around the world. The Archbishop said his desire was to help the community by providing services. There are almost 70 Catholic Schools in Israel and a university in Bethlehem. Pizzaballa suggested bringing peace with small gestures at first like soccer games betweens Israelis and Palestinians. He also came out against the recent UNESCO resolution calling it “problematic”
“We have to have the courage to talk about peace,” he said.
Rabbi Rosen volunteered three suggestions of his own on the subject of peace:
- Keep communication between religious leaders open
- Combat incitement and religious intolerance
- Provide religious support to bring an end to the conflict.
All three leaders spoke of the creation of an Interreligious Coordinating Council, whose mission was to “harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths and transform religion’s role from a force of division and extremism into a source of reconciliation, coexistence, and understanding for the leaders and the followers of these religions in Israel and in our region.”
Youan took a much harder line against the Jewish presence in the West Bank repeatedly referring to it as an occupation. He also cited the Lutheran community’s effort to build schools, hospitals and other civic institutions. He said his community was leaving Israel for three main reasons:
- Lack of peace on the horizon
- Difficulties and strains of occupation
- Growth of extremism in both Israel and Palestine
“We are a balancing power in this region,” he said.
At dinner we had a presentation by the lawyer and professor Eugene Kontorovich. Kontorovich provided a legal argument for keeping Israel’s borders including where settlements are based on international law and applying the same precedent as other countries that have disputed territories.
Legalistically, Israeli-Palestinian relationship was similar to dozens of arrangements in the world that are not subject to the same standard. He specifically cited the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
His central thesis was as follows:
“When a country is created, the borders of the proceeding countries that emerge are the previous top level administrative unit.”
He suggested by his logic that in fact at the time of Israel’s creation, Jordan and Egypt were occupying Israeli territory and that 1967, was the END of the occupation. Kontorovich also dismissed practical concerns of a dissolution of the PLA and West Bank government saying that if it was in their benefit to dissolve they would have already done it.
JCPA Senior Vice President, Melanie Gorelick, offered a broad overview of the trip and what she hoped mission participants would take from the experience. Gorelick spoke about how she hoped mission members would take what they have learned to become better and more nuanced advocates for Israel back in their home communities and hoped they all had a better understanding of the civil rights, and pluralism issues presently facing the country.
Melanie and David Bernstein concluded the dinner with by asking Mission participants what issues they were grappling with as we neared the end of our mission and have been exposed to multiple issues.
A number of issues expressed related to
- Pluralism, equal rights and egalitarian prayer
- Lack of passion for 2 state solution
- How Israel would remain Democratic
- Apathy among Israeli public
- Disconnect between U..S. and Israeli concerns
- Weakening of Judicial Review
- Drift of Democratic party
A number of mission members then offered positive aspects which included a number of observations
- Participants were particularly moved by Ziv Hospital and visiting with the Ethiopian community.
- Overall growth in pluralism and women’s rights over last several years
- Comprehensiveness of trip
“There are glimmers of hope, even in the greatest darkness”
Day 5 of JCPA Israel Mission 2016 saw an abridged program that took mission members to the Israeli settlement of Efrat and to a visit with the Israeli non-profit, “Roots”
In Efrat, mission members were given an hour long audience with the mayor, Oded Revivi, who spoke about the complexities of growing the settlement amid domestic and international pressure. New construction needs approval from Jerusalem and sometimes even the United States. The settlement is sausage shaped due to the Efrat’s intention to not expand into privately owned land. Revivi said this has led to harmonious relations between Jews and Arabs in the region. There is no security fence presently separating the different populations.
“Fences create a sense of security. They do not provide security,” Revivi told mission members.
Revivi also insisted that things were far more peaceful in Efrat and the majority of Jewish/Arab settlements, and that the media tended to only focus on the most extreme cases. He noted that in the morning, when Jews left to work in Jerusalem, the settlement has more Arabs than Jews and things were fine. He also warned against blind adherence to the 1967 borders.
“We had 1967 borders in 1967 – and there was no peace.”
After leaving the mayor, JCPA mission members visited Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, the director of international relations for “Roots.” Roots is an innovative initiative led by a Palestinian and settler in the West Bank who are creating a coexistence program in recognition that both sides will be living together.
“Radical elements in both communities see us as traitors,” Schlesinger told mission members.
Hanan spoke mostly of his life story coming to Israel and living in the land of the ancient Hebrews. He said for most of his initial time in Israel he was largely unaware of his Palestinian neighbors and the competing narratives and claims they had for the same land. His work in Roots came out of his eventual understanding of the Palestinian story.
“My triumph is someone else’s tragedy,” he said.
Schlesinger said that peace between governments could only exist if grassroots peace on the ground was established first. Peace in any form, he added, must be based on mutual respect and recognition on both sides.
This was followed by group free time and then Shabbat.