JCPA Israel Mission 2016:
Melanie Roth Gorelick
JCPA Senior Vice President
As American Jewry is grappling with how to deter delegitmization efforts against Israel and is experiencing polarization on how best to support the Jewish state, JCPA headed to Israel on its annual JCPA Israel Leadership Mission from December 4-11. The 20-person mission included eight Frank Fellows, five JCRC Directors, Board members, and JCPA staff. The goal of the mission was to help JCPA guide the community relations field to be nuanced advocates for Israel in the United States and provided us with an opportunity to share the view of the field with Israeli officials.
The mission focused on five thematic areas. These areas were chosen to help our local advocacy by seeing firsthand what was happening in Israel – both the challenges and gains. Through this experience, we can best help explain them and the complexity of Israel to those who could be influenced by anti-Israel voices. The areas included:
- racial and gender equality,
- pluralism and freedom of religion,
- current efforts for peace and a two-state solution,
- humanitarian support for Syrian victims,
What we saw was a vibrant, democratic, 70-year-old country with several challenges that are part of its growing pains:
- Israel is a democracy, where the Knesset, the courts, and the diverse populous, including Palestinians, have the freedom and support to advocate for the ideals they believe. Yet this can be frustrating as the population is one of the most diverse in the world and is made up of Jewish and other people from diverse cultures and countries coming to live together under one roof.
- It has managed disputed land that for too long has been considered occupied by parts of the international community. The land represents both the ancient land of Israel and the foundation of a future Palestinian state.
- It is dealing with the cost of needing strong security on its borders which has taken a toll on its domestic policy, education, and the lifestyle of its youth and broader population.
Some of the highlights of the trip include:
- Humanitarian values are put into practice. We visited the Ziv hospital and heard from NGOs working with Syrians injured in that country’s civil war. We also had the opportunity to meet with a number of Syrian patients. Israel’s help to those who have been historical enemies was very moving. The county has aided more than 2000 in the last two years. We also visited the Bialik-Rogozin School, which ensures the education of migrant and refugee children regardless of whether the parents are in the country legally. The school is educating 1000 students from 50 nations.
- Exploring efforts for peace while meeting with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Ramallah, Knesset members, and foreign ministry officials. There seems to be a strong longing and support for achieving two-state status for two democracies, especially with worry about ISIS and war on the borders. Dangerous ideas do not need a passport. Although there is a pause, there is also recognition that final status should happen through negotiations. The majority of the Palestinian population are millennials. We also learned about increasing efforts of Palestinian and Israelis working together for peace.
- We also heard from a retired general who is working hard on a two-state solution plan that would have Israel implement all measures needed for a Palestinian state even before a peace deal is finalized.
- Meeting with Ethiopian leaders who are working with their community to integrate into Israeli society. They value education which they believe is the foundation for political power. While some are able to succeed, others have experienced racial bias, an issue that the country is committed to deterring. Additionally, women are also organizing in coalitions to help increase the number of women in elected positions throughout the country.
- While freedom of religion is flourishing for the non-Jewish community as we learned from conversations with Latin Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa and Lutheran leader Munib Younan, the issue of pluralism in Israel is currently under dispute. The movement for egalitarian prayer is working its way through the legislature, the court system, and is a major concern of the diaspora community.
- We witnessed the debate over removing the Amona settlement in the disputed area of the West Bank. Although the courts have found it illegal, the diversity of opinion about settlements is currently being debated in the Knesset. It was amazing to see it firsthand.
- We also visited Efrat and spoke with the mayor who shared his reality of trying to live in coexistence with Palestinian neighbors as well as work toward peace. We also visited with Roots, a grassroots coexistence project based on non-violence between settlers and Palestinian activists.
- We heard from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we may have some challenges in our relationship as they believed the Israeli government may have better relations with the new U.S. administration than American Jews.
In conclusion, my takeaway after beginning my journey Poland, is that it is imperative to have a Jewish state, which is also a thriving democracy, even as we may currently agree and disagree with some of its domestic directions. While we must be allowed to talk about Israel’s strengths and weaknesses, we can continue to work in the U.S. to create relationships with those who can influence Palestinians and Israelis to build two states for two people living in peace, and to stand up to those who make false claims against Israel with the aim of seeing its demise. The visit has also strengthened my resolve that the community relations field must be bolstered to support Israel and participate on these missions. Our voice to the Israeli influencers are important and what we bring back home is even more important.
Here are some of the amazing quotes that we heard on the mission:
“If you love Israel because you hate Muslims, we don’t want your love,” – Michael Oren, MK
“Young Jews now are not just falling away, but they are going to lead the attack” against Israel – Yair Lapid, NK
“I don’t want my sons and grandkids to be suicide bombers” – Saeb Erekat
“I wanted to say I was Jewish, but I was nervous because I had never spoken to a white person,” – Rachamin Elazar, (Ethiopian Jew)
“Blast injurious are awful. Recognizing the human hand behind them has been difficult to come to grips with.” – Ziv physician, Dr. Michael Harari
“Nothing destroyed our society more than ineffective government.” – Dr. Uzi Arad, Israeli National Security
“As long as there is any woman in this country prevented from running for office because of her gender, I am not free.” – Hamutal Gouri: the Director of the Dafna Fund of NCJW.
“We have to have the courage to talk about peace.” – Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa,
“There are glimmers of hope, even in the greatest darkness” – Frank Fellow participant