|J Street leader’s joys and sorrows in first trip to Israel|
|By Elizabeth Hollander|
|Friday, 16 March 2012 17:56|
|J Street sponsors Women’s Leadership Mission|
JERUSALEM – Is it possible to cry and smile at the same time? When I prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with the Women of the Wall, I did both.
These are the brave women who have been arrested for “carrying the Torah with intent to read” at the Wall, only a quarter of which is open to women. This was one of many extraordinary experiences I had as part of a Women’s Leadership Mission to Israel organized by the J Street Education Fund and the Women Donors Network. The Mission, from Feb. 18 to 26, included 20 women in all – 13 women leaders, six congresswomen – one each from New York, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas and two from California –and me, co-chair of J Street Rhode Island.
The trip was designed to deepen our understanding of the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and to advance women’s empowerment in conflict resolution both in the Mideast and here at home. We were exposed to a wide range of opinions and experiences. Briefings at the Knesset by current government leaders and members of different political parties offered the Israeli viewpoint, and a meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah provided the Palestinian perspective. Sadly, neither side saw an urgent need for peace negotiations.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) briefings and a visit with the security chief in Sderot (the Israeli village most exposed to rockets) gave us insight into serious security concerns. Touring Hebron with former IDF soldiers exposed us to the travesties of occupying a Palestinian city in the name of protecting settlers. We saw closed Palestinian shops on “sterilized streets” on which only Jews can drive and an express bus stop also only for Jews.
A tour of Jerusalem helped us understand the growth of settlements and how that growth, it seems to me, impedes a two-state solution. A visit to Yad Vashem again illuminated why the drive for a secure homeland for the Jews runs so deep. A visit to Shiloh helped us to experience the messianic fervor of those who feel they are reclaiming Judea and Samaria.
We met with many leaders of Israel’s extremely vibrant civil society organizations that promote women’s rights, human rights, Palestinian rights, economic justice and connections between Israelis and Palestinians. A former Israeli Supreme Court justice clarified the crucial role the court plays in upholding the Declaration of Independence (Israel’s nearest document to a constitution) and providing a balance of powers.
In Bethlehem, we met with Christian leaders who promote nonviolent peace efforts, and we visited the Church of the Nativity.
I added extra days to my trip so that I could experience the joys of visiting the Israel Museum, relaxing on Tel Aviv’s beaches, walking to the Old City of Jaffa and trying “the best hummus in Israel” (according to a friend) in a little shop in Jaffa.
I came away from this visit with many joys. As an American, I am deeply proud of these congresswomen, four of whom had visited Israel four or five times before, who asked great questions, graciously but with persistence. I was also proud that five of them are women of color.
As a Jew, I experienced the deep emotional connection that makes Israel so important to Jews. I took great pride in Tel Aviv’s clear economic boom and the richness of art and culture evident in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I was heartened to see signs of economic investment in Ramallah, as well.
I delighted in the energy and commitment of many women (including young, American Jewish women) who have turned their disappointment in Israel’s shortcomings into urgent advocacy work for justice. I was pleased by the commitment to nonviolent resistance by both Palestinian activists and Fayyad. I experienced this first-hand by joining a peaceful protest in East Jerusalem in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where Palestinians, Jews and Christians regularly protest the illegal seizure of Palestinian homes there.
The source of my sorrow was the continued growth of settlements, including those incursions into East Jerusalem, with the support of both the Israeli government and American money. I was troubled by what Naomi Chazan of the New Israel Fund has called “a recession in the democracy.” Many bills in the Knesset are targeting the very nongovernmental organizations I admired by trying to deny them access to international investments. The Knesset, as well, is trying to change how Supreme Court justices are appointed.
Increased segregation of Israelis and Palestinians was evident everywhere as was a sense of widespread denial of the impact of these practices on Palestinians. The occupation practices, including random house raids, detentions and “sterilized streets” are distressingly antiethetical to Jewish values.
According to polls, 60 percent of Israelis support a two-state solution; an equal number think it is never going to happen. Facts on the ground make this easy to understand. Again and again, those who share our sense of urgency for a two-state solution told us that Israel cannot have a democratic state, a Jewish state and all the land. It must choose two of the three. Repeatedly, we were also urged to encourage the U.S. to take a strong role in pressing for peace.
The trip was sobering, but it reinforced my determination to do what I can, as an American Jew, to support Israel’s efforts to be a “light unto the nations” and find a peaceful way to live with the Palestinians. Israel is not a perfect democracy, but then neither is the United States. I will keep uppermost in my mind Kol Haneshama Congregation’s Shabbat service in Jerusalem where the rabbi asked an imam to end the service with the Muslim prayer for peace.