My first trip to Israel was in 1982 (it still seems a bit surreal when I think of it) when I went with the federation national leadership into Lebanon to witness the Israeli military action that resulted in Lebanon’s liberation from the Palestinian Liberation Organization. On that remarkable journey we heard from then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who told us with great
optimism and an air of certainty, “Peace is at hand.” He explained (I am paraphrasing): “We have made peace with Egypt; with the PLO out of Lebanon we will have a quiet border to the north, and soon peace will come with Jordan on our eastern border.” It was an uplifting and energizing, though far too short first visit. Sadly, one month after my visit, Israel came to be viewed not as liberator but as occupier. Now, some 20-odd trips later, despite having been robbed of a degree of optimism due to the setbacks of the past 30 years, to me Israel seems no less mythical, and no less miraculous.
I was determined, in designing the itinerary of the recent Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona mission, which took place Oct. 23-Nov. 2 with 12 participants, to engage in an Israel experience that would not whitewash the harsh realities of the day. More to the point — I was anxious to confront a broad range of viewpoints from all walks of life. And we did just that. For the first time in years a delegation from our group crossed the “green line” to visit Tekoa, a settlement founded in 1972 on the same land that the Maccabees had inhabited some 2,200 years before. We spent an afternoon with Israeli-Arab leadership, including the first Israeli Arab woman to have served as a member of the Knesset. Over the course of our visit we met journalists (including the editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, who says his editorial role is to be a critic of government policies in order to spur debate) and academics, including Asher Susser and Shlomo Aronsen, both of whom had served as visiting professors in modern Israel studies at the University of Arizona. We met with artists, sociologists, politicians, historians and others who played a central role in creating Israel’s history.
We toured the much-debated security barrier that has reduced the number of successful suicide attacks from more than 140 in 2002 to zero last year. And sadly, we confronted harsh realities that our partners in Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon face when security cancelled our visit to the region in the face of missiles from Gaza falling in the area.
For me, this visit reinforced the notion that when one confronts Israel’s full and challenging realities and contemplates the historical context in which these realities exist, one cannot help but return to that view that Israel is a glorious miracle. Let me be clear: Israel is not perfection. A full 50 percent of Israeli first graders are either Israeli Arabs or Haredim, both populations that are not fully integrated into Israeli society. While we witnessed programs supported by our Federation designed to overcome the
obstacles to making these and the new immigrant populations more fully part of Israeli society, it is clear that progress must be accelerated.
Debates about whether or not the current government is doing its best to advance peace, and about how to address the growing divide between rich and poor are ongoing. Frankly these debates felt familiar having lived through them in a similar context in our own country (Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement). Although in this brief report I can’t detail the various input that led me to my assessments (although I’d be delighted to do so in person for those who’d like to discuss further), I can simply offer that I came away from all of this with the following conclusions:
• With regard to peacemaking, I continue to align myself with those who believe that Israeli leadership absolutely aspires to achieve peace, but that they must maintain a position of strength from which to negotiate. As Asher Susser said, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has a major dilemma: “He can’t make peace with Israel without Hamas, and he can’t make peace with Israel with Hamas.” This and numerous other facts on the ground, including the fluid situation in the region caused by the “Arab Spring,” make it vital that Israel maintain a strong position to negotiate from.
• With regard to the economic challenges, it is clear that Israel, like the United States, will need to reverse the growing divide between rich and poor, but at the same time Israel’s abundant growth is startling and truly remarkable. Our visit to the awe-inspiring A Better Place electric car company was testimony to the genius of the Israeli “start-up nation” that has become so legendary. And having attended a massive protest rally against the high cost of housing in Tel Aviv, I felt assured that Israel as a civil and vibrant democracy is very much alive. This means, of course, that in time they have every possibility of facing these challenges.
• The final point takes me back where I started. As I learn more and see Israel from a wide range of vantage points, I continue to feel inspired and engaged and desirous of returning again and again. What has been achieved in a mere 63 years is quite frankly so remarkable that it is perhaps beyond comprehension. Our Jewish community indeed can be extraordinarily proud to play a role in and draw strength from this miraculous place.
Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.