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Enough of a Syrian what if…

19 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most inane comments I have heard made in relation to the Syrian conflict goes somewhat along the lines of: thank God we didn’t trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria because then we would now have ISIS or al-Qaida on the banks of the Kinneret. Even seasoned commentators like Ari Shavit and Shmuel Rosner have made such claims.

But history obviously doesn’t work like that. Yes, if we had traded the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, under Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon, and every single thing which has actually happened since 1992-5, 1996-1999, 1999-2001, or 2001-2006, would have still actually taken place, then yes, ISIS or al-Qaida would be on the banks of the Kinneret. But to suggest that a comprehensive peace deal with Syria would have triggered the exact same set of events which no comprehensive peace deal with Syria triggered is folly. Who knows what might have happened if we had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Heights?

This post is not written to suggest that Israel should have agreed to such a peace deal but simply to stress that to disparage those who supported, or were even willing to entertain, such an idea as naïve based on what has happened since not agreeing to such a deal is illogical.

Of course, nobody today proposes that Israel should trade the Golan Heights for peace with ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra or Assad. But, students/tourists should certainly be made aware of the fact that Israel’s unilateral application of Israeli law to the area in 1981 was a move still not recognized by the international community. Moreover, they should understand that if and when Syria stabilizes in the future, the issue may well once again become relevant.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and the director of Teaching Israel.

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Guiding and politics

12 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education Minister Naftali Bennett            Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over Shabbat meals with other educators this weekend, discussion naturally focused on the new school year – and politics (it was Shabbat and we are in Israel, after all!). We discussed Herzl Schubert, a teacher, who was “caught” on camera at a recent Nabi Saleh protest against the encroachment of residents/settlers of Halamish on privately owned village lands, including the al-Qus spring. Yisrael Zinger, the mayor of Ramat Gan, where Schubert is employed, Deputy Mayor Aviyahu Ben Moshe, and many parents, called for his dismissal. The issue hit national headlines with Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich chiming in and supporting firing Schubert. Discussion also covered Avital Benshalom, the newly appointed principal of an Ashkelon school, who had to justify her 2002 signing of a petition supporting the right of soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in order to keep her job, against the objection of parents and Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni.

Interestingly, one of the tour guides at the meal – an olah from the West Coast of the US – said that she wasn’t surprised at all, and that she herself has personally encountered such attacks in her own professional life as a result of her apparent “extreme leftist activism.” Perhaps her activism might be more rightly considered to be “slacktivism,” as my friend has been to maybe two handfuls of rallies and protests during her time in Israel – perhaps one or two a year on average. Taken aback, I asked what had happened to her. She said she was interrogated in a job interview about her political views, even when she continued to answer questions by explaining that she would teach about all political viewpoints and allow students/tourists to come to their own informed conclusions – whether they be right, center or left.

What is so strange is that my friend is on the public record – in writing and at public appearances – as stating that the aim of her Israel education is to help students/tourists develop independent, critical and analytical thinking skills which will allow them to reach their own educated viewpoints – whatever they might be.

I paused and then asked my friend whether she should have asked her potential employer the following question:

“I understand that you don’t want to employ a leftist as an educator because you view her as too political (even though it is clear that her politics do not enter her classroom; indeed her students/tourists move from their previously held views toward greater complexity and nuance, which often includes moving away from the left).

“Do you also have a problem in employing tour guides who say “I’m not a political person; I just want my students/tourists to love Israel, support the government and do Israel advocacy on campus” (perhaps the most politically loaded sentence one could imagine)?

“What about avowedly right-wing guides who explicitly aim to instill right-wing views in their students/tourists?”

No, I didn’t think so.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

On dual narratives

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I have been involved in Israel programs for more than a decade here, and also for many years in Australia, where I was raised. I see this as such an important enterprise because it offers participants the opportunity to undergo a transformative experience, whether in the realm of spiritual-, national- or self-identity development. Spending time in Israel is truly life-changing. Facilitating such an experience can also change the tour guide himself. I certainly feel tremendously affected by my experiences dual-narrative guiding — both from my interactions with Palestinian tour guide colleagues, as well as with Palestinian guest speakers.

I am against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, especially as a precondition for negotiations. This is because I cannot fathom a world where PA rais Mahmoud Abbas will give Israel a kosher certificate for policies which privilege Jewish Israeli citizens over Palestinian Israeli citizens. Moreover, Israel does not need Palestinian approval to define itself one way or another. To suggest as much represents galuti (Exilic) Jewish servility – something which Zionism and the establishment of the State were, amongst other things, meant to redress. And, of course, to make such a demand a precondition for the resumption of negotiations appeared to be a delaying tactic.

But, after recent experiences dual-narrative guiding, together with Palestinian tour guide colleagues, I have changed. I have seen significant disagreements develop between myself, a moderate Israeli Jew, and moderate Palestinian tour guides, as well as Palestinian guest speakers. I see that some Israeli Jews can and do accept Palestinian narratives as legitimate and valid (whether we agree with them or not) but that many Palestinians refuse to accept the fundamental basis of the Israeli narrative as legitimate and valid. They seem to only truly accept Israelis who disavow Zionism. I refuse to disavow Zionism just as I would never demand that Palestinians disavow their most basic truths.

I do not need Palestinians to become Zionists, nor even to accept that the State of Israel should have been established. However, I do need them to appreciate the religious and national ongoing connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. My existence here in Jerusalem is qualitatively different to the existence of the French in Algeria. My roots here are deep and historic. This land is the cradle of Jewish civilization. I do not need Palestinians to agree with my claims (just as I do not believe that the Palestinians are descendants of the Jebusites – a major claim about Palestinian pedigree which I have heard uttered again and again as a basic truth) but I need them to understand that in the Jewish national consciousness I am not a European colonialist usurper who is a stranger to this land. Without this understanding, peace will not arrive.

We do not need to accept the other’s narrative as true but we need to understand it and accept that the other certainly believes it to be true. From there, with competing and clashing narratives, understood and accepted by both sides, we can have the strength to move forward to a better future, in which both peoples can enjoy peace, security and human rights.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

Kids 4 Peace

23 Jun

by Meredith Rothbart

K4P

Israeli and Palestinian kids enjoying camp together

Kids4Peace is a community of more than 400 Israeli and Palestinian families that come together for meetings, weekends, trips, events and summer camps out of the belief that together, peace is possible. Kids4Peace’s 8th grade program “Roots” focuses on identity and responsibility. This summer the group will travel to the Negev for an outdoor desert experience, utilizing the natural environment as a springboard to facilitate discussions on topics such as personal responsibility, identity, connection to land and peaceful coexistence.

The entire cost of this camp is only $6000. Last year, for the camp’s first year of operation, we were able to raise nearly all the funds locally just before the camp began through online campaigns, small fundraising events and kind donations from local supporters. Due to the tense situation in Israel right now we are at a loss, as supporters stand in the sidelines, angry with the other side and skeptical of the prospects for peace. This is especially sad because we believe that now, more than ever, educating kids towards respect and tolerance is the only hope we have for a more peaceful future.

If you are interested in supporting Israeli and Palestinian teenagers spending the summer together learning to become peace leaders in their communities back home, please consider donating to Roots Camp 2014 and supporting this important cause.

Please visit here for more details.

Meredith Rothbart is the Director of Public Relations of Kids4Peace Jerusalem

A deeper and more tangible connection

8 Dec

by Elana Goldenkoff

Machane Yehudah

Machane Yehudah on Friday afternoon – Jerusalem preparing for Shabbat

I leaned against stone that had been hewn 2700 years ago. We had just exited Hezekiah’s Tunnel and I was awed at how in the eighth century BCE, with such limited technology, the ancient Judahites bore through more than 500 meters of solid rock to bring water into their city. In a room that some archaeologists believe to be the royal palace of the City of David, my classmates and I softly began singing “Hallelujah.” That moment, I knew I was home.

During my high school sophomore year I spent four months away from my family living and studying near the stone archways and packed marketplaces of Jerusalem. My friends and I bargained in Hebrew for exotic spices and fresh breads wrapped in day-old Arabic newspapers. We navigated the complex transit system to get back to campus before the city shut down for Shabbat. We even joined 10,000 other Jews walking to the Kotel before sunrise after having stayed up all night learning at Tikkun Leil Shavuot. I fell in love with the culture of this diverse city that has both a storied past and a hopeful future.

Israel had always been like that for me. Attending Jewish day school, Jewish camps, and a Conservative synagogue, I learned of Israel’s short but rich history, its agricultural, scientific and technological advances, and its progressive social policies. I learned that David and Goliath, the story of the weak underdog who courageously defeated a stronger oppressor, was symbolic of the nation of Israel itself.

But that day, near Hezekiah’s Tunnel in an ancient corner of Jerusalem, I heard another story: that of David and Bathsheva. David slept with a married woman, who fell pregnant. He then essentially murdered her husband by sending him to the frontline to be killed in a royal cover-up. Even though clever Halachic reasoning might explain away his crime, suddenly, my image of the man whose story had always seemed to embody the State of Israel itself was altered and I began to reexamine my idealistic perception of the country.

During my semester in Israel, I discussed the Middle East conflict with dozens of people from various backgrounds. I met Israeli soldiers who recounted their firsthand experience fighting militants and religious Jews who fervently believe in a Biblical connection to the land and want a unified Israel regardless of the cost. I listened to Israeli-Palestinian teenagers who feel like second-class citizens whenever they leave their predominantly Muslim towns, a man whose home was destroyed from bombings during the Second Lebanon War and peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution and their vision of true democracy.

That spring, I had become fully immersed in the totality of Israel and learned to grasp the pulse and the power, as well as the pain, of the country.  As I became aware of the fractures and faults within the nation I had been taught to love, I began to reshape and develop my own understanding of Israel. I no longer saw Israel through rose-colored glasses and I struggled to comprehend Israel’s reality of imperfection.  However, for me, this reexamination created a deeper and more tangible connection, one that permits me to challenge existing beliefs and, at the same time, to continue to love Israel. In a larger sense, this personal process of self-examination and opening myself up to exploring new ideas is what I value most about my experience in Israel. The imprint of this experience will have a lasting impact on my life.

Elana Goldenkoff participated in a high-school semester abroad program in Israel in 2012.

Hebrew & Israel education seem to be moving in various directions

8 Sep
by Laurie Rappeport

On the one hand, there are more Jewish children than ever enrolled in Jewish day schools, ranging from pluralistic schools to Federation-based institutions to schools which are affiliated with a specific philosophical or ideological mandate. Whichever Jewish day school a child attends however, statistics note that s/he is more likely to identify with Israel and with the Jewish community, marry a Jew and raise a committed Jewish family.

On the other hand, Jewish afternoon and Sunday schools are in transition. The number of overall hours of Hebrew school instruction has decreased over the past 20 years and many families are forgoing afternoon/Sunday school enrichment programs due to competition with other after-school programs programs, difficulty accessing a nearby school or a family’s general lack of affiliation with the sponsoring synagogue or temple.

If Google is any indication however, there is still significant interest on the part of parents and kids alike in Jewish learning. There are thousands of clicks every month of people searching for “online Jewish education,” “online Hebrew school,” “Jewish learning” and other keywords that point to kids’ desire to engage in some kind of Jewish learning program.

The JconnecT program has been created to address these needs. JConnecT students meet every Sunday morning for either one or two hours, depending on whether they want to register for Hip Hop Hebraics, Contemporary Jewish Issues or both sessions. The classes are geared to meet the kids’ interests and expectations as they make Jewish learning relevant for the 21st century.

Hip Hop Hebraics brings spoken Hebrew into a modern framework, using audio-visual presentations, contemporary usage and meaningful songs and dialog to engage the students in the language through modern Israeli culture.

The Contemporary Jewish Issues course takes the students on a journey of exploration as they examine the subjects that are of concern and interest to today’s Jewish community. In addition to Jewish heritage, topics include Israel-centered themes such as War and Peace and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

JconnecT runs in conjunction with the Margolin Hebrew Academy of Memphis which hosts two yearly Shabbatonim for the participants. Students are invited to join Margolin students in a Shabbat atmosphere of singing, discussions and social interaction.

Participating JconnecT students are generally pre-teens and teens who have either not successfully integrated into an existing Hebrew school framework or who live in areas where there are no afternoon religious schools available. Jewish homeschooling families often include the JconnecT program as part of their homeschooling program.

Laurie Rappeport is a JconnecT educator. For further information about JConnect please visit JconnecTLearning.

It is not a question of Zionism

25 Aug

by Ilan Bloch

Image

Martin Buber. Image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Several years ago I was facilitating a seminar on Zionist thought and theory, which included a presentation of “Humanistic Zionism,” represented by personalities such as Martin Buber and Judah Leon Magnes. These thinkers called for a bi-national state, in which Jews would enjoy not only constitutionally guaranteed individual rights, but also rights as a collective. I shared with the class my thoughts that many Israel educators would refrain from presenting these views as part of their teaching about Zionism and that, in fact, some might even condemn me for presenting what they might consider to be anti-Zionist ideas. When I asked my students what they thought about the matter some argued that such viewpoints were anti-Zionist because Zionism means a Jewish state, some said that such ideas were not anti-Zionist before the establishment of the State of Israel but that their application today should be considered anti-Zionist, and others recognized these beliefs as Zionist in every way.

One student, however, responded by remarking that the question was a silly, or at least irrelevant, one, and that it had no business being asked in an academic setting. When I asked her what she meant, she responded by arguing that the relevant issues at hand when discussing a political idea about the future of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) are whether it can be applied in a way which strengthens democracy, human rights, the security of the residents of the Land and the development of Jewish culture in the Land. Whether this policy or another can be defined as Zionist, post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist is simply irrelevant. “Zionism” meant a lot of different things to different people before the State was established – there were thinkers who called for a Jewish state, those who thought such a state was unnecessary, those who thought the status of Jews was the key problem to be resolved and those who thought it was the status of Judaism itself. Only after the establishment of the State did “Zionism” become a tool which could be used to invalidate opposing political views. Today, instead of actually critically analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of this policy or another, one can simply dismiss it as “anti-Zionist.” People attempt to disenfranchise their political opponents through branding them anti-Zionists, instead of actually engaging with their challenging ideas. Such as an act is a demagogic one, similar to dismissing an opponent’s argument by responding that “it’s against the will of God.”

I thought of this discussion when considering the statements of many left-wing politicians, thinkers and public activists who call the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank (and previously in the Gaza Strip) “anti-Zionist.” Such name-calling is irrelevant. Criticism of the settlement movement – just like criticism of far-left wing ideas, or any other ideas about the future of Israel for that matter – needs to be based on the same four criteria my student enumerated during the seminar about Zionism. This is not to argue that Zionism is irrelevant per se, but rather that using it as the measure of whether a particular political idea is cogent or not is not a useful exercise when discussing politics in the twenty-first century.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.

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