My wife and I just returned from a two-week visit to Israel, leading a group of Jewish and Christians. I went after a couple of years in which I went through some gut-wrenching soul searching thanks to some colleagues and friends whom I both trust and admire — people who can and do know all of Israel’s shortcomings vis-a-vis the Palestinians and human rights in general and who cite them chapter and verse.
I went there wondering if my lifelong feelings as a Zionist would hold up. I was amazed at what I saw and experienced!
I should begin by saying that I am a harsh critic of Israel. I always have been and always will be. My criticism comes from a desire for Israel to be perfect — which it is not. So when I see imperfection, I cry out. When I read that a West Bank settler harassed Palestinians going about their olive harvest or blocks them from reaching the grove, which is the source of their livelihood, I cry out. When I see that the will of the minority ultra Orthodox Jews is sometimes imposed upon the majority secular Jewish community, I cry out. When I read revisionist history of Israel, which shows that there were examples of Jews forcing some Palestinians from their villages, I simply cry.
One site was very instructive. On one stretch driving south on Highway 90 through the West Bank, I was looking for a refugee camp that used to be there years ago. It wasn’t there. What I did see was a modern-looking town. I asked my guide, and he said that the camp was no longer there; that the town I saw was the Palestinian village of Fasa’il. The inhabitants of this village were former refugees who lived in that camp I remembered.
Prior to 1967, when it was part of Transjordan, the Jordanian government did not allow refugees to leave their camps. When Israel occupied the West Bank, it permitted Palestinians living in the camps to live wherever they chose. People in this particular camp used Israeli irrigation technology and developed orchards, palm groves and banana plantations. Eventually, they were so successful that they moved out of the camp and built new homes, creating this lovely village of Fasa’il. It is beautiful but not without its controversy. The town gained international attention when in 2007 the IDF planned on demolishing the village’s primary school.
For most people, this would be the end of the story: Israel’s “bad!” But I always look for what the late Paul Harvey used to call “The Rest of the Story.” When I investigated this sad story, I found out that the school had been built without building permits. That bureaucratic process takes a long time, and the villagers did not want to wait to build the school. But for the safety of the students, Israel chose to enforce the building codes, knowing full well that it would suffer for it with bad publicity. Israel was correct on both fronts. It suffered tremendously in the world press. But it was also correct (in my estimation) to destroy the school. Children’s safety was at stake!
Beyond the story of Fasa’il, I observed in Jerusalem the school called Yad B’Yad (Hebrew for “Hand In Hand”). This school is based on the Israeli curriculum but has an administration, faculty and student body that is one-half Jewish and one-half Arab. As I watched the students go through their morning activities, I was trying to figure out which of the students were Jewish and which were Arab. It was impossible to tell! And the best news about this school is that it is gaining in popularity among Israelis. It has now grown to four campuses throughout the country. And as the school representative pointed out with pride, they have achieved new highs in academic test scores so that this school is sought out for these achievements as well as for the ideal that it represents.
I also met with Anat Hoffman, the leader of “Women of the Wall,” a group seeking equal access to the Western Wall and equal expression of Jewish rituals by both men and women. She is also the director of the Israeli Religious Action Center, a group of lawyers who represent people of all faiths who feel that their civil rights have been violated by the government. Hoffman spoke of her groups’ successes and frustrations.
There are many more stories I could tell. But I have to say that I returned still very much in love with the Israel ideal and vision of being a Jewish state and a lively democracy. I remain both critical of the country’s shortcomings and enthusiastically supportive of this gem of a society — imperfect and flawed but proud of its direction and ideals! And I look forward to my next visit in 2014!
Alan Greenbaum is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Harim. He lives in Grass Valley.