January 6, 2020
By Miriam Smulevitz Dant
Last month, I traveled to Israel on the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) Israel Mission, a trip geared toward Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) lay and professional leaders. The six day trip was jam packed from morning into night with amazing speakers covering everything from Israeli politics, culture and economy, issues affecting various minority communities, and the conflicts in Gaza and the West Bank. The trip allowed me to see some parts of beautiful, complicated Israel more clearly than ever before, but other aspects of what we heard are still a jumble in my mind, which is probably the right reaction, given the thousands of years of history, conflict, and complexity behind Israel.
While I’m still struggling with what my conclusions are about some of the conflicting narratives we heard in Israel, there’s one takeaway that could not be clearer and more certain: the importance of the interfaith and intergroup relationship building and community engagement work JCRC’s do. Several speakers on the Israel mission, including a Knesset member and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told us how this work that we do in the US not only serves our American Jewish communities well, but it helps in Israel too. The Archbishop of the Holy Land talked to us about the important interfaith work he does for his minority denomination in Israel, and we heard from grassroots peace movements formed by Israeli and Palestinian women, Jewish-Arab partnerships to promote women’s rights and political involvement, and important measures to support the LGBTQ community and Ethiopian Jews.
The importance of our relationship and partnership building efforts was reinforced to me while visiting the West Bank and hearing the viewpoint of our Palestinian tour guide; when only one side of a complicated story is being told, it’s easy to see how hatred grows and the bad can overshadow the good that is happening. Building relationships and partnering with faith and ethnic communities united by our common pursuit of a just society, and our commitment to standing together in the face of divisive issues, takes on added meaning during times like this.
I expected to settle in back home relieved at the relative simplicity and clarity of the issues that Jews face in Indiana, and around the US. However, in the middle of the Israel mission, a horrific antisemitic-motivated shooting occurred in New Jersey; and in the weeks leading up to the trip, and even more frequently and shockingly in the weeks since our return, the Orthodox Jewish community in New York has been attacked multiple times.
While an easy response would be to say that these things are happening far away from Indiana, history has taught us that it would be naïve and foolish to believe that these things can’t happen right here in the heartland. In fact, a year and a half ago, a synagogue a mile from my home was defaced with swastikas and an attempted fire. Our Jewish community is on the proverbial “high alert,” our institutions and synagogues are ramping up security, and our community is viewing our bonds with interfaith and minority groups as more important than ever, both to ourselves and to each other.
In September, I participated in a different kind of mission trip: the Indianapolis JCRC took a cohort of Indiana state legislators to Washington, DC for the day. We toured the Holocaust museum and heard from national Jewish organizations about the work that Jewish communities do to build bridges and form coalitions with groups that advocate for human and civil rights, and social and economic justice. At the end of the day, one of the legislators said to a group of us at dinner, “now I understand why the Jews are the first ones to step up when a minority is being attacked.” It was so heartening to hear the legislator understand that what happens to one minority could happen to any other one.
Like in Israel, there are no easy answers. But when our Jewish community works with and supports other minority communities, we affirm the notion that we have each other’s backs in times of trouble, and that we’re all stronger together. The Indianapolis JCRC issued a statement on the NY and NJ attacks calling for specific action: “We urge our neighbors, civic, faith, and intergroup leaders to stand up and speak out – every time – when there’s an expression of antisemitism, whether in word or deed. We call on educators to partner with us. We need our elected officials at all levels of government to not only publicly decry antisemitism, but also help us implement effective solutions. And we appreciate and look forward to working even more closely with local law enforcement to implement best security practices in and around our institutions and synagogues.”
This call for action will guide the Indianapolis Jewish community as we deal with the difficult times ahead, as we continue our work with community and intergroup partners on issues of shared concern and our common pursuit of a just society. And my experience on the JCPA Israel Mission will guide the work that I do in our Jewish community for years to come.