Israel is a nuanced, complicated country, as JFSA interfaith trip affirms

Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Israel — an interfaith delegation sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Our group consisted of 28 dynamic and open-minded people — a vibrant and deeply engaged mix of faiths, ethnicities, and professional backgrounds.

Together we walked, climbed, and explored the LAND — from religious, historical, and archaeological sites in Jerusalem, Masada, and the Golan Heights to the military complex of Israel Aerospace Industries, a leader in both the defense and commercial markets, where the Iron Dome was developed.

We enriched our understanding by reading TEXTS, from Biblical to contemporary. We read Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources that informed the foundation as well as the continuing conflict that defines the only democracy in the Middle East.

We focused our attention on the diversity of PEOPLE who inhabit this thriving country. Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Bahais, and Druze, settlers in the West Bank, and immigrants from Africa, Russia, and the Philippines. Secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, each one sharing a different story, a different struggle, a different Israel.

And as we wove a tapestry of these three aspects of Israel — land, people, and texts — a common thread emerged. In fact, a single phrase defined our major takeaway: IT’S COMPLICATED.

I first lived in Israel in 1974 when Israel, at 26, was only five years older than I. Now, 45 years later, it’s hard to reconcile the Israel of today with the one I knew back when my apartment had no hot water or heat and the (non-Arab) world was predominantly sympathetic to and supportive of the fledgling country that was established as the Jewish homeland.

The Holocaust enabled us to support a country where Jews would always be welcome and safe. And American Jewry was proud to support Israel with dollars, slogans, new immigrants, and even life.

Today the majority of American Jews view Judaism as a religion based on universal principals of social justice and liberal Jewish values. Liberal thinking is universal and applies to all people, regardless of race, sex, gender, nationality. It requires fairness, justice of the highest resort. And Israel poses problems to this type of liberalism, or so it seems from the optics and news we read.

But in Israel, Judaism is much more than religion. It is a national concept emerging from Biblical times where civilization, history, and culture reside. Judaism was and is the basis of Zionism, the national yearning for and mandate to establish a country that any Jew can call home. This difference between American Jews and Israeli Jews leads to more than diversity of opinion. It leads to a crisis of identity and identification. And it’s COMPLICATED.

It’s hard to fathom in the safety of our homes in Tucson what the daily need for national security in Israel means, let alone requires. But an incident occurred during our trip that really brought that point home.

After we visited IAI, we visited Netiv Ha’asara, a small Jewish community on the Gaza border. There we met with a Jewish artist and participated in Paths for Peace, a project in many ways similar to Ben’s Bells in Tucson. Within yards from the Gaza border, an Israeli artist engaged us all to add to the beauty of the security wall with tiles that said PEACE in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. We knew that behind that wall in Gaza, Palestinians were struggling to live. We also knew that from behind that wall, rockets were sent daily, weekly, at all hours into Israel, forcing Israeli families to run for shelter in order not to be killed. (Imagine living in Tucson where rockets fired from South Tucson would land in our backyards.)

We had dinner that night with families who lived in Netiv Ha’asara. They welcomed us with open arms and home cooked meals and shared stories of what it was like to live so close to death.
The mom with whom I had dinner shared her fear that when she took a shower, a siren would go off. She only has 15 seconds to get her family to the shelter in order to keep them safe. Just three days later, 11 rockets were fired from Gaza into the very town we visited. It’s COMPLICATED.
We met people in Israel who believe that peace is still possible. They were working in organizations like Shorashim, a joint process that envisions a social and political reality founded on dignity, trust, and the mutual recognition that Jews and Palestinians have a legitimate relationship to the land. Israelis and Palestinians, side by side, working together at the risk of their own safety to create a new reality. Yes, it’s COMPLICATED.
It would be hubris to think that I have any answers. In fact, this trip only created more questions. But I know that any resolution over time will require sacrifices. And sacrifices cannot be unilateral; they must be made on both sides.
When Jews and Arabs work together to save rather than to destroy what is most precious to them, be it their children or their land; when they mutually agree to educate their children about the necessity of peace rather than to deploy them in the cause of hatred; and when love for life trumps hatred and revenge, we may see a new beginning in the land of Israel. But, in the meantime, it’s COMPLICATED.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker, and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association, and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at