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Executively Speaking: Thoughts on a Powerful Trip to Israel

by Michael Saxe-Taller, Executive Director

I just returned from a Passover trip to Israel. I went to participate in a Jewish Leaders Conference of Jews from Israel and diaspora communities around the world. The conference was as good as I expected, but I was moved by my overall visit in ways that I had not imagined.

I have lived in Israel for four separate years, between 1986 and 2000 and have visited a number of other times, though not for the last seven years. During my times there, I made many friends, both Israelis and Palestinians and my experiences have had a profound effect on my relationship to Israel and Palestine, Judaism, Jewish tradition and ritual, Torah and Jewish community.

Over the last several years, my main engagement with Israel and Palestine has been through the news of the often-repressive policies of Israel’s government and the conflicts in the US about how to relate and respond to those policies. My awareness of the effects of those governmental policies has been heightened by the fact that over the past three years, our closest Palestinian friends immigrated to Ottawa, Canada because they found life in East Jerusalem increasingly untenable for them and their three boys.  When I left on this trip, I was finding it hard to remember that Israel is more than a place of political conflict.

I arrived just before Pesach in time to participate in a joyful Seder in Jerusalem with old friends. On Shabbat, I walked for hours around neighborhoods that I have previously lived in, remembering numerous stories from my different visits. I spent a morning with my elderly cousins whose parents came from Drohitchen, the same Belarussian shtetel as my mom’s parents. From there, I went to Neve Shalom to spend five days with a crew of 130 Jewish leaders, including 40 Israelis. At many points during my eight-day visit, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. Almost from the time I arrived, I felt my heart opening. I shared a taxi from the airport with two kind young Israeli women. I had a lovely pre-Shabbat conversation in Hebrew with the Mizrachi owner of the food store where I used to shop every week. Numerous people helped me as I navigated my way from Jerusalem to Petach Tikva and finally to Neve Shalom, where the conference was held.

At the conference, I listened in particular to the Israelis. I was reminded of their kindness, care, passion and joy in living. I was also reminded of how challenging their lives are as they negotiate the increasing economic and social stratification of their country. I heard stories of how scary it has been to live in a country where all young Jewish Israelis are compelled to serve in the military and violence and war is a common reality. They talked of the impacts of systemic racism against Mizrachi and Ethiopian Jews in Israeli society. They shared about the ongoing effects on them of their government’s continued occupation and oppression against the Palestinians and the challenges of addressing the discouragement that many Israeli Jews feel about efforts to make change.

We covered many important issues at the conference including antisemitism and internalized antisemitism, healing from historical trauma, racism in Jewish communities and the intersection of racism and antisemitism, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. But my biggest learnings came from my personal interactions with Israelis.

It has felt easy to feel mad at Israelis because of the their government’s oppressive policies or because once again they elected a hard right government. I was reminded that Israelis are Jews like me. My cousin’s parents left Drohitchen for the same reason that my grandparents left. Life for Israelis is multi-faceted and three dimensional, like it is here and everywhere.  When I view it from only a narrow angle, I miss the complex reality.

I do my social justice work as a Jew and I work hard to claim all Jews in this county as my own, regardless of their views, opinions and actions (not all that easy, particularly these political days). I do this because, as I learned many years ago while working at Berkeley Hillel, in order to influence and impact someone, I must first make a real effort to care about, respect and understand them. I was reminded on this visit that, similarly, I must claim all Israelis. It is through caring and curiosity that I can have relationships with Israeli Jews. And it is through those relationships that I can be of any support to them as they seek just solutions to the many problems they face.  As importantly, it is through these relationships that I can learn, grow and become the kind of Jew and person that I strive to be.

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