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Earlier this week, I returned home from a conference in Israel with 30 CEOs of similar-sized North American Jewish federations. Amazingly, this was my 50th trip to Israel – what a blessing to have the opportunity to visit so many times!
The conference theme came from an incredible address by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin at the 15th annual Herzliya Conference in July 2015. The conference had the following objectives:
•Deepen the understanding of the complex political, social, and economic issues and trends Israel is currently dealing with, and are also of strategic importance to North American Jewry (e.g. religious pluralism, social cohesion, minority integration, Arab-Jewish relations, entrepreneurship, etc.).
•Exposure to new opportunities, initiatives, and approaches for strengthening Israel engagement and fundraising that can be applied to local federations.
•Learn with and from colleagues.
Here are several trip highlights:
•Yossi Klein Halevi, journalist and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, shared his insights about Israel today. He always felt a two-state solution was the answer, but now is very unsure. He worries that Palestinian leaders will continue not to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel and rockets will come out of the West Bank. If that happens, Israel will have to respond and, once again, receive bad press in the court of world opinion.
But even worse, according to Halevi, is a one-state solution. Neither side, however, currently sees a two-state solution as satisfactory – they see it as a “contraction to their own claim for justice.”
In Halevi’s view, there are two main stumbling blocks towards a peace agreement – right of return for refugees and Jerusalem. He does not believe either side will be satisfied with the resolution on these two issues, and thus an agreement will remain elusive.
In the end, Halevi is most concerned that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are speaking different languages. He feels American Jewry has a 1980s/1990s view of the current situation (it is about the settlements) and Israelis are far beyond that mindset (issues of trust and security).
•Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, is the lead opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He stated that the Palestinian leadership’s strategy (Israel to be blamed for the conflict, the settlements as the major stumbling block) has collapsed with the election of President Trump. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu is challenged by embracing the new administration when 70 percent of Jews voted for the other party. With this, Lapid is concerned Israel is losing its bipartisan support in the United States.
•One major area of interest is the Bedouin community in Israel. When Israel was established in 1948, there were 12,000 Bedouins who became citizens. They were a nomadic community with their own customs and traditions.
It has been a challenge for Israel to integrate the Bedouin community into Israeli society. Today, the Negev (southern part of Israel) includes 240,000 Bedouins -- 160,000 live in “recognized towns” and the remainder live in 35-40 “unincorporated” villages (with no public services or utilities).There are huge issues of poverty and unemployment, very large family structures, and weak educational opportunities.
In partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Joint Task Force on Arab Relations (which we help fund), Federations are doing our part to assist the Bedouin community. We visited the town of Lakkiya, a very large Bedouin town with real infrastructure. We continued past the town into the “unincorporated” part of Lakkiya and met an inspiring young man named Ibrahim.
Following high school, Ibrahim’s parents encouraged him to get his college degree (first in his family of 32 children – his father had three wives) and to become a PE teacher. Ibrahim did – yet hated the job. Then, starting with one truck he built the Lahav Transportation Company, now the largest in the Negev. He expanded into other businesses including a cheese factory and a factory supplying food to all the Bedouin schools in the area. He is not only providing needed services, he is also creating jobs and developing the Bedouin economy.
With his successes, and at just age 34, Ibrahim is giving back. With $300,000 of his own money, he founded three “Tamar Centers” across the area. These after-school and Friday all-day enrichment programs currently teach 200 Bedouin students (ages 10-18) English, physics and math. He wants to see these children be competitive in a 21st century world. They also provide classes for parents and teachers to enhance their skills and help enable the children to succeed. Ibrahim provides this at no cost. In addition, he covers all transportation costs for the students to get to the centers.
I am unsure of the word in Arabic, but Ibrahim is truly a mensch and beautiful philanthropist. I look forward to seeing what more he creates.
What were the “big takeaways?” Sadly, the important work (social and human services) of the Jewish Federation (and many other Jewish organizations) in Israel has been lost on North American Jewry. Instead of talking about the “wonders” of Israel (i.e. high tech, agriculture, people like Ibrahim) and the incredible social services we make happen, the conversation devolves into debates about the settlements and the conflict. Of course these are important issues, but to the Israelis these are minor issues compared to social challenges in the country.
Yossi Klein Halevi may be right when he said we are speaking “different languages” to one another. We just see the current “realities” through our own lenses. If we do not create a common language and dialogue, then we will see our communities perhaps disconnect even further. We must work hard not to allow this to happen.