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Israel in 2020: Doing Better than Expected, Less than Required[1]

01/11/2020 09:31:19 AM

Jan11

Rabbi Wendy Pein

On January 9th, I returned from an eleven-day trip to Israel, a trip that was part of my studies to obtain an Executive M.A. in Jewish Educational Leadership from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.  There were twenty-eight participants on the trip and we were led by three Reform Jewish educators.  Prior to the trip, we were told that this trip  would not be a “trip for first-timers” – there were no trips planned to the Kotel/Western Wall, hikes up Masada, dunking in the Dead Sea or visits to kibbutzim.  Instead, we spent time analyzing what makes the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv a “Jewish city”, learning about the 22% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish, listening to Arab students in an acclaimed Arab school not far from the West Bank and exploring the challenges of shared citizenship and social cohesion in the diverse religious, ethnic and cultural Jewish state of Israel.

The theme of our trip was listening to the voices of the “other”, voices of the past and present which are/were outside the mainstream, and then reflecting on how those voices are woven into the story of Israel. This includes the story of Said Abu Shakra, the director of the Um el Fahm Art Gallery, an art gallery in a socio-economically depressed Arab village, who explained how the art gallery serves as a vehicle to help lift the self-esteem of Um el Fahm residents.  We listened to Rabbi Yechezkiel Fogel of Kiryat Ono College Haredi campus tell the story of how this branch of the college is helping Haredi students acquire educational skills to gain  employment and thus reduce poverty in Haredi communities. At the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Museum, we learned about the history of the Iraqi Jews, how they were dispersed from Israel to Babylonian after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and how they created a flourishing Jewish community in Babylonia and an academic and spiritual Jewish center in Baghdad in the 8th century CE.  The Baghdad Jewish community experienced growth and decline until the Farhud massacre in 1941 during which 150 Jews were killed. This was the impetus for the Iraqi Jewish community to immigrate to Israel where they faced tremendous challenges such as living in tiny, makeshift huts during their transition and absorption and also faced prejudice from Israel’s ruling political parties and from society. We spent time in Ofakim, a development town in the Negev and listened to Ms. Yahaloma Zchut, a volunteer leader who has been instrumental in establishing a volunteer trauma center to help thousands of trauma victims in this western Negev town.  And finally, we spent time in the Bedouin town of Rahat and listened to the narratives of two Bedouin women, one of whom told us about the traditions, challenges and accomplishments of her clan based community, and the other who has become a female entrepreneur to help support her family in the face of adversity.  Both Bedouin women are thankful and support Israel for giving them more freedom and opportunity as Israeli citizens than their clan gives them as traditional Bedouin women.

On one of the final days of our trip, we listened to Michael Prashker, the author of the recently published book, A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and The Future of Israel.  Prashker made an impassioned argument that it is essential for Israel to work toward greater social cohesion based on shared citizenship. He articulated two statements which have resonated with me. When asked how he would characterized the state of Israel, he replied that Israel is “doing better than expected, but less than required.”  Israel is 72 years young and came to existence in the shadow of the Holocaust.  Israel’s founders did not have any experience in democracy.  Therefore, Israel itself is a democratic miracle in the Middle East. In 1948, there were approximately 800,000 residents of Israel.  Today, and many wars later, Israel is home to  8.5 million people, is rated 34th in world population density and 21  of 34 in GDP per capita of the countries ranked by the OECD (Organization of Economic and Cooperation and Development).  It is world famous as the “StartUp Nation.” The Zionist challenge of today is to make Israel a fairer country, a country that takes citizenship seriously and to reach conflict resolution with its’ neighbors.  As Prashker reminded us, even if we sometimes disagree with Israel, “don’t despise Israel, despise Israel’s policies.” 

These personal narratives taught us that Israel’s citizens now feel empowered to work toward achieving their vision of a Jewish state.    Our trip participants left feeling hopeful – Israeli citizens are working toward “tikkun” or “repair” in many aspects of society and it inspired us to do the same in our communities back in the United States. How is Israel doing?  Israel is facing extraordinary challenges both internally and externally.  However, I would agree with Prashker’s view that Israel is doing “better than expected, less than required.” Israel may not yet be the utopia its founders had originally envisioned, but it is currently in the midst of recreating the vision of a Jewish state for all its 8.5 million citizens.  72 years young and with a resolute spirit, I am hopeful that Israel will continue to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and that it will eventually establish “bonds of cooperation” with its’ neighbors (from Israel’s Declaration of Independence).

Ken y’hei razon, May this be God’s will and may we work to achieve it as well....


[1] As expressed by Michael Prasher on January 7th to our group. Michael Prashker is the author of A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and The Future of Israel.

Sat, July 31 2021 22 Av 5781