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Tucson’s Next Gen men gain insight on Israel exploration trip

The recent Next Gen Men’s Group trip to Israel was no run of the mill tour. Participants returned believing that Israel-Palestine issues are far more complicated than they thought before the journey, says participant Larry Gellman.

What defined the trip for Gellman and others was the unique opportunity to spend time on the ground with both Palestinian and Israeli leaders and people. The trip was an engaged learning experience for the small group of five men to understand the big picture, addressing many of the vexing issues facing Israelis and Palestinians today, says trip leader J. Edward Wright, Ph.D. “The goal was to help them inform our community and become more aware of the breadth of views and why Israelis and Palestinians are passionate about those views.”

Wright is a University of Arizona professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism who has directed the university’s Arizona Center for Judaic Studies since 2000. As a past president of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in East Jerusalem, Wright has access and indeed friendships with some preeminent national leaders and scholars. That’s why this year’s Next Gen trip coordinators, Bobby Present and Gary Kippur, recruited Wright to develop the concept of a political mission of understanding.

The group encountered not only leaders on both sides but regular Israelis and Palestinians as they live their daily lives in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and Hebron. Afternoons were spent debriefing, digesting and analyzing the issues absorbed throughout the day. Travelers included Wright, Gellman, Present, Stuart Gross and Tom Warne. Co-chair Kippur was unable to attend due to his brother’s passing.

The pivotal stops on the tour were a day in Hebron, reviewing attitudinal surveys conducted around citizen support for a peace initiative in Ramallah, and some chilling predictions in Tel Aviv of escalating conflicts in the region this month (see sidebar).

Visiting Hebron, the men had a first-hand view and feel for the invisible borders delineating the city’s H1 and H2 sectors. Dr. Anwar Abu Eisheh, the former Palestinian minister of culture and a Hebron community leader, introduced the group to life in the city since the sectors were cordoned off in 1995 and settlers moved into the center of town. “We could feel what it is like to walk the streets there,” recalls Gellman. “It was the most visceral, emotional experience. Living for decades under that situation (in Hebron) can’t be described.”

Present called the visit a disturbing experience. “Visually and the stimulation of the experience was unsettling.” He recalled settlers living next to Palestinians, throwing garbage down from their windows onto the people below in the market place. “But I felt less sympathetic,” Present adds, after spending two hours with Palestinian radio personality and blogger Lubnah. “She sees a one state solution of Palestinians, and Jews not living there anymore.” He notes the woman is very well respected, articulate and passionate, “but this is completely failed leadership.”

Khalil Shikaki, Ph.D., is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, a think tank on domestic politics and government and strategic analysis and foreign policy. He is a senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and frequent lecturer at UA. He shared results of public opinion polls and survey research on Palestinian attitudes toward peace. Conducted in dangerous, contested areas, the survey asks what it would take to support a peace initiative. Despite initial opposition by respondents to any peace initiative, the survey shows that, with proper incentives, Palestinians will support a peaceful resolution with Israel, Wright explains. Present calls that “a glimmer of hope.”

Among leaders visited was journalist and Knesset member Nachman Shai, who shared the issues surrounding security matters. “He was honest and direct in his assessment,” Wright recalls. A tour of Shrine of the Book and the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated from 3rd century BCE, brought focus to the depth of Judaic presence in Israel. Curator Adolfo Roitman, a former classmate of Wright’s, discussed the shrine and museum history.

The group also visited Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel’s answer to America’s Ivy League universities, aimed to produce Israel’s next generation of leaders, Wright says. Present underscored this effort for “pursuing education and improving lives of people through the education process,” noting that many Muslim students attend the college.

Matt Adams, Ph.D., guided a tour of the old City of David excavations. He directs the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, the oldest American research center for ancient Near Eastern studies in the Middle East. The center also documents the depth of Judaic presence to between 1st century CCE and 12th century BCE, Write adds. Later, at the institute, the group examined artefacts including 2,800-year-old pottery and a Crusader’s skeleton.

Shifting to Tel Aviv, two leaders wrapped up the visit, providing a 360 degree perspective. Retired Tel Aviv University professor Asher Susser was a visiting professor at the UA for four years. A Middle Eastern historian, he relayed how Israel has related to Palestine in conflict issues surrounding the settlements and how it can remain a democratic and a Jewish state with a two-state solution. Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich addressed regional issues relating to Syria.

In a visit to American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jerusalem office, arranged by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, the group saw how the JDC helps Jews around the world during emergencies.

The Next Gen Men’s group was initiated by long-time community benefactors Donald Diamond and Paul Baker, in reflection on their involvement and connection to a men’s trip to Israel decades ago. “The idea was to inspire the next generation to take community leadership and inspire them to connect with each other and the Jewish community,” says JFSA CEO and President Stuart Mellan, who helped bring the group fruition 13 years ago. Subsequent bi-annual  trips, sponsored by JFSA, included Cuba, Argentina, Morocco, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., all destinations where the Federation movement is active. Each trip has a strong Jewish-informed itinerary, with visits to senior living centers, Jewish day schools, along with sites of Jewish and general interest, Mellan says.

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