November 4, 1995. It was a Saturday afternoon around 3:00 pm EST in Baltimore. I was sitting in the living room of our small apartment watching a college football game when it was interrupted by a “breaking news” report -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. I, along with people around the world, were in disbelief. It is amazing to think about the impact of that event some 20 years later.
Let’s remember, this was a time early in the peace process following the Oslo Accords. Many of us remember the signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993 when Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands. It seemed that a brighter future was in store for the Middle East. And now, some 20 years later, the entire region feels so different and distant from that point in time.
On Wednesday, representatives from The Abraham Fund spoke to a small leadership group about their efforts in Israel. The Abraham Fund is an Israel-based organization focused on improving the policy and practice of a “shared society” (no longer just co-existence) in Israel between Israel’s citizens – both Jews and Arabs. Their efforts focus on promotion of equal access and opportunity and increased participation in Israel’s democracy.
In addition, the Abraham Fund strives to enhance the Israeli educational system, including improving Hebrew language skills for Arab students. This will help for their future as they seek university and employment. As a surprise to some, earlier this week, the Israeli Knesset (a bill introduced by Oren Hazan from the Likud Party) unanimously approved (in its first reading -- it will need to be voted on two more times) a law to make Arabic classes compulsory for Jewish students from the age of six, in a move supporters hope will help improve ties between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages of Israel, but while the vast majority of Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew, Arabic is not widely spoken among the Jewish population.
The two presenters (one Arab and one Jewish) spoke about the challenges of the current situation in Israel. They talked about the “fear” on the streets, the levels of incitement, and the inability to control messages on social media.
One bright spot, however, is the closer socio-economic efforts within Israeli society. Everyone understands the advantage of greater Arab integration within the Israel economy. Hundreds of millions of shekels have been spent on economic development in Arab communities, which should help raise the entire Israeli economy and benefit all people.
Although some improvements are happening in the State of Israel, major challenges will persist for years to come. While here, in the United States, the “Israel conversation” continues to struggle.
Last night, I had the privilege of speaking to the Oregon Hillel Foundation Jewish Leadership Council in Eugene. Twenty-five students from University of Oregon and Oregon State University representing a myriad of Jewish organizations on campus came together to talk about “Shalom Bayit (peace in the home) – Inclusiveness in the Jewish community.” We talked about ways the Jewish campus community can be more welcoming and open. So, I asked the group for areas where inclusion and dialogue are a challenge. Their first response – Israel!
I inquired some more and asked them why talking about Israel is so difficult. Here are the words they shared: awkward…volatile…controversial…emotional…ignorance…misinformation…passion…inability to listen, just to name a few. Hearing firsthand their challenges on campus made me think about how different their college experience is from mine (23 years later).
Their words remind me of the first time I met Yitzhak Rabin. In May, 1988 I was in Jerusalem during the first intifada. I attended the B’nai B’rith International annual convention representing BBYO as its International President (along with Portlander Michelle Blumenthal Caplan). Yitzhak Rabin was then Defense Minister and spoke to the audience about the challenges for peace, especially during that difficult time, and the need to get there. He spoke with passion, noting that there is passion on all sides. He talked about the need for dialogue. And, most of all, he talked about the requirement to make difficult pragmatic and controversial choices.
As Robert Slater wrote in his recently published biography about Rabin, “One needs to understand that Rabin was the first native-born to become Prime Minister, the first to be born in the 20th century, the first to be educated entirely in the country, and the first to emerge from the army, bringing an altogether tone to Israel’s leadership. Yitzhak Rabin was a leader whose personal history paralleled that of his country, a onetime warrior that became a peacemaker…Rabin had the capacity for change and he took risks. Above all, he had a vision that peace was not only a tactical necessity for his country, but a supreme value.”
I now look back, think of his words and actions, and wonder what might have been? What if the world events were different 20 years ago? Who knows if we would be in the same position we are today – or perhaps better or perhaps worse. But in the end, it takes all people, willing to do their part, to create an enduring peace.
Shabbat shalom, have a safe weekend, and do not forget its time to “fall back” and set your clocks back one hour on Saturday night.