January 27, 2016
On January 25, 2016, I curled up on my couch in my downtown St. Louis loft and flipped open my laptop to skim the news. A story in the Times of Israel entitled “Israeli Man Fights off Palestinian Stabbers with a Supermarket Cart” caught my eye. It featured an Israeli man named Mordechai Shalem who reportedly fought off two Palestinian terrorists who were brandishing knives.
I was struck both by how preposterous the scenario seemed, yet also how frighteningly commonplace it had become. However, it was Shalem’s description of his experience that ultimately captured my focus. He said, “[y]ou see two people facing you with their knives raised. I saw the hatred in their eyes, the anger. I knew I had to stop them from getting in.” As I reread his words, I could feel the Palestinians’ hatred and anger, and I immediately empathized with Shalem and wondered if this insane violence would ever end.
Prior to participating in the Frank Family Leadership Institute Mission, I am sure my reflections about this stabbing would have ended with that thought. I likely would have shook my head and turned the page. Instead, I found myself wondering what the terrorists’ lives were like before that day and what personal experiences led them to this decision. I realized that they would likely be remembered both as hateful terrorists and as freedom-fighter martyrs, no matter how irreconcilable those descriptions seemed.
Ultimately, I realized I agree with the assertions that Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad made when we visited him in the West Bank at the location of his initiative for peace. After sharing his difficult personal story, Awwad told us that “both sides have truth and reasons they are right, but each is only a partial truth.” He emphasized that “falsehood is a partial truth masquerading as complete truth.” Doubtless, the ability to view a conflict from an opposing perspective is a critical step toward moving closer to common ground and, hopefully, peace.
The invaluable opportunity to learn about and see other perspectives is only one of several ways that my participation in in the Frank Family Fellowship Mission to Poland and Israel impacted my life for the better. On January 3, 2016, I was fortunate to join seven Jews from various parts of the US, along with an energetic and enthusiastic JCPA staff, as we embarked on the 2016 Frank Family Leadership Institute Mission. The Frank Fellows ranged in age from early 30s to 40s, and proved to be dynamic, intelligent, interesting and compassionate. We began the trip in Krakow, where we toured Auschwitz-Birkenau in frigid temperatures. Two days later, we travelled to Jerusalem, where we joined an experienced generation of members participating on the JCPA Leadership Mission. We also had the pleasure of connecting with Lois and Larry Frank, the benefactors who made the fellowship possible. Although we would quickly learn that the members of our group had very different perspectives and opinions, we were fundamentally connected as American Jews who want to learn because we care about the safety and security of Israel.
Initially, I was unsure what the overall goal of the trip was or whether we would be expected to promote any specific political agenda. Fortunately, it quickly became apparent that the Franks and JCPA designed an itinerary that granted us unfettered access to a variety of high-ranking officials from a variety of backgrounds, including professionals from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Knesset, and the Institute for National Security, as well as former President Shimon Peres. We also spoke with professors, journalists, a real estate developer in the West Bank, and a former Palestinian Minister.
In addition to the various security-related matters, we discussed religious pluralism, Arab/Israeli relations, and the degradation of Israel’s stature around the world. As we learned about the dramatically different perspectives on these issues, we were encouraged to ask critical questions and respectfully push back when necessary. Ultimately, Lois and Larry Frank, along with the JCPA staff, led us through an intense learning experience that left me with a newfound confidence in my basic understanding of the major issues facing Israel, the region, and Jews around the world.
Despite the intensive travel and meeting schedule and related mental and physical exhaustion, I know I was not the only person who actually felt energized and re-connected to a strong sense of purpose. Despite the complexity of the issues Israel faces and despite being in the thick of the conflict where many perspectives left me feeling frustrated and hopeless, I ultimately found an unwavering belief that peace in Israel is possible. As former President Shimon Peres said when we met with him, “the choice is not between the left and right, but instead the past and future….we must teach our children not how to remember but how to dream….and we must make the future a better place for all people of all nations.” I am grateful for the opportunity to play even a tiny part in that effort.