There are few, if any, countries in the world where Israel isn’t demonized. Israelis have been accused of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians. They have been compared to Nazis. So-called intelligentsia of universities in the U.S. and Europe have called for divesting from Israeli companies. The only democracy in the Middle East has been portrayed as the most evil country on the planet, surpassing all dictatorships, as well as misogynist nations that practice everything from infanticide to honor killing, where rape is permissible and freedom of speech a capital offense. Israelis I have met are puzzled. They ask me, “Why does the world hate us?” My question is, “What does the world really know about Israel?”
On a Shabbat afternoon, with the temperature feeling more like the New England we had left behind several weeks ago, my husband and I faced the cold, rain, and wind and trudged upwards to the Arnona area of Jerusalem to have lunch with my old friend Gail Glickman White, now Sara HaLevi, her four children, as well as some assorted friends. In traditional Shabbat fashion, we spent the entire afternoon eating and engaging in lively conversation. In Israel, no subject or opinion is taboo. Discussions easily turn into debates that are sometimes heated and passionate, yet disagreements never threaten the thread that binds friends together. Over ice cream and brownies, I posed the question that I had been asking just about every Israeli I had met on this trip. Do you think there will ever be peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Sara’s oldest daughter, Liora, whose wisdom surpasses her 21 years, piped up, “Why does the world always look at the macro picture without considering the micro.” I translated this to mean that Israel is judged by its government, not by what happens between Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs on a daily basis.
Liora went on to talk about her circle of young Jewish, Palestinian, and Arab friends at the Hebrew University, where she is majoring in mathematics. Once a month, Sara, her mother, joins a group of Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian women who meet on what is known as the “seam line,” the demarcation line between Arab East and Jewish West Jerusalem. They gather to study, debate, and discuss religious texts. She told me of her male Arab co-worker and friend, who makes her coffee, a practice that men just don’t do in Arab culture. The stories continued long after we had taken our last bites of food. The experiences I continued to have during my two and a half weeks in Israel testified to the amazing cross-cultural relationships that are happening throughout this country, as well as some additional features of this country that are rarely publicized. Below are just a few examples:
- In a Bedouin village, an Israeli nurse works alongside three Bedouin nurses who lead a nutrition group for new mothers to help them care for themselves by eating healthy and exercising. The group organized by the Israeli Ministry of Health and is funded by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, as well as private donations. These women live in a very traditional patriarchal culture, in which women are forbidden from walking on their own. The relationships forged among the women in this group, however, have resulted in members forming walking clubs with each other, with their husbands sometimes joining them and other times, staying home, while their wives walk and socialize. The group takes place in a clinic where, as in all of Israel, young children are required to have regular check-ups and all new mothers are screened for post-partum depression, all paid for by Israel’s national health insurance program.
- The Israeli government will soon be airlifting its last group of Jewish Ethiopian refugees. Our guide, Nadav, pointed out that this is the only country who intentionally brought 150,000 black Africans to its shores, not to enslave, but to free them from persecution. The same thing happened in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1950s and 60s, when Middle Eastern countries expelled their Jewish citizens, Israel gave them a home. Today, Israel is a mish-mash of cultural diversity, where it’s not unusual for European and Sfardim, black and white to engage in friendships, romance, and marriage. The Middle Eastern Jews, who a generation ago, were living in tents, have fully integrated into society, as have the Russians, and the Ethiopian community is on the rise.
- While undocumented immigrants in the U.S. continue to fear discovery and deportation, thousands of non-Jewish Sudanese have illegally crossed into Israel. I have seen these tall and lean dark people working in seaside resorts and on the streets of Tel Aviv. In a country of 8 million people occupying an area size of New Jersey, Israel’s urban areas are literally bursting at the seams. Urban poverty also breeds crime. In a difficult economy, where prices are skyrocketing and jobs are not plentiful, I have been amazed that efforts are not being made to send the Sudanese back. The moral dilemma is that there is nowhere to send them, so they stay.
- In Afula, a struggling, mainly Ethiopian community in Northern Israel, I visited a program that provides educational services to hospitalized children. The teachers who run this program welcomed our group and showed us the amazing technology that the government provides to make sure these children of all ages, races, and religions, do not fall behind in their academics. The program also helps alleviate the anxiety about hospitalization by providing multi-media age-appropriate medical information for each child. The program was amazing, but what I remember most was the story the head teacher, Agnon, told us, about a young boy who had brain cancer. Even though he lived in Gaza (Palestinian territory), he was treated in this hospital. Agnon, his Jewish teacher, carries his phone number in his pocket and teacher and pupil speak regularly.
- There is a large mosque that stands next to the Dan Panorama Hotel, overlooking the Tel Aviv beach. It has been empty since the 1948 war. The Israeli government has a policy never to destroy a religious building no matter which religion it represents.
- The latter is not unusual. The Israeli government allows Palestinians in need of specialized medical treatment to be cared for in world-class hospitals like The Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, and when they can’t pay their care is free.
These stories are not isolated incidents in a country that is struggling to live its values, while searching for a way to keep its citizens secure. Before I left for Israel, I saw the Academy-Award nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” which presents interviews of the leaders of Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the FBI, many of whom share their regrets and ambivalence about Israel’s role in the Palestinian territories. It’s a difficult film to watch. ‘I think this film shows publicly how Israelis struggle with the moral implications on their decisions and actions, and I think that is a good thing.’ This was the comment made by an Israeli friend, when I asked him his thoughts about this film.
Thank you, Liora, for turning my eyes in the direction of the “micro” Israel. Maybe someday the rest of the world will notice……