The Big Hug: Impressions from JCPA’s 2018 Mission to Israel

by tgilden

By Melanie Roth Gorelick |

“The Big Hug” is how I sum up our JCPA2018 Mission to Israel because wherever we went we were embraced. Our 19-person delegation (including eight from St. Louis) ventured to Israel to take the temperature of the two-state outcome, assess the state of Israeli democracy and pluralism, and study issues important to the community relations field. We returned with numerous insights that will benefit our work, but most striking was how much Israelis—from young people to Knesset members to Palestinians—both need and want to learn how to cultivate civic engagement and grassroots advocacy from the community relations field.

We began the Mission at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federation of North America, where the theme “let’s talk” meant that our mandate was to work hard to understand each other better, rather than just airing grievances born of a growing divide between diaspora-Jewry and Israel. Israelis have little exposure to or knowledge of Jewish Americans, our values, and religious expression. In fact, President Rivlin even suggested forming a “reverse Taglit” so Israeli teens can visit the U.S.

After the GA, the JCPA Mission met with the Foreign Ministry, Knesset Members, before visiting the Gaza border, where we met with civil society leaders. Everywhere we visited, diverse leaders repeated the same refrain in almost every meeting: Israeli society lacks civic engagement education and grassroots advocacy—the successful ingredients in American community relations work. Although children learn basic civics, they do not learn the democratic lessons instilled in Americans at a young age that lead them to seek out advocacy. The American Jewish success story is in part how we work in common cause with others to attain achievements like greater equality for all, as well as the freedom to practice our religion.

The Knesset members and civil society leaders both wished they could better mobilize citizens on important issues, including ending gender segregation on the bus, assimilating asylum seekers in Israel, and a variety of pluralism-related causes, especially around marriage. Young people from Orthodox to Reform are pushing back against the Chief Rabbinate who only allows people to be married under Orthodox Jewish law. This issue is motivating people to work for change, as well as spurring efforts by the Israeli Reform community, led by IRAC and Hebrew Union College, to challenge the court system to be more inclusive, more equal for all.

The Israeli government does respond when people speak up collectively. According to Boaz Rakocz, the XXXX from a new organization called The Whistle, after a rally against the high prices of cottage cheese and housing, the government worked to decrease costs of living in housing, food, and provide increased opportunities for employment.

We also saw signs that the idea of civic engagement is taking greater hold:

  • We visited BINA Secular Yeshiva, which is teaching Torah to citizens of Israel and instilling in them Jewish values of Tikkun Olam and social justice while giving them opportunities for hands-on advocacy experience.
  • We spoke with Ramadan, a Palestinian man living in East Jerusalem, who was willing to break away from his family and community to run for Jerusalem Municipality office. For him, ensuring that there were schools, playgrounds, and garbage collections were worth risking his life.
  • The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants is pushing back against government actors who are testing the bounds of democracy through the asylum seeker issue. People are closely following an “override bill” in the legislature that would override the Supreme Court decision in order to deport and detain asylum seekers, which the court ruled was in violation of Israel’s Basic Law. If enacted, it would be the first legislation to challenge the Supreme Court’s authority.
  • We met with Arab-Israelis and the faith-based communities that shared how the Nation-State law caused a great deal of pain for many in Israel. We heard how the passage of the bill undermined the recent efforts of the government to be more inclusive. Recently the government had increased funding aimed at integrating Arab-Israelis (or Palestinian citizens of Israel, as they preferred to be called) in Israel so that they can better benefit from professional employment opportunities, and upgrade their community’s infrastructure, transportation, and general quality of life. Many of the Knesset members with whom we we spoke were working on a companion bill to reflect Israel’s intention of equality and peace.

The two-state solution is currently on pause. It seems that until new Palestinian leadership emerges–and the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is over—such a solution is not on the table. Although everyone is curious to see the U.S. peace plan Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner are currently preparing. One idea we heard from speakers at the Institute for National Security Studies is to split Area C* in half, bringing into Israel the parts that incorporate existing Jewish settlements and placing other half under Palestinian Authority control.

Our visits with all segments of society were extremely well received. Israelis on all sides are working to create the world in which they want to live while also dealing with the harsh reality of security concerns on a daily basis. Young people are interested and engaged. As we leave Israel, we know that the issues they face are complicated and we hope to share our best practices that helped us build a vibrant community relations network. We feel the “Big Hug” from opposite sides of the globe.

*Area C is currently under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Government. We may be hearing more about this soon.


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