Day #8 – Hope – Israel/Palestine

15 March 2024

In a way we end the trip where much of this difficult story begins … in the old city of Jerusalem.  It is a last minute decision whether we will go or not, because, of course, this is how we roll here.  It is the first Friday of Ramadan and while the opportunity for Muslims to come and pray at the al-Aksa compound is important on any Friday or any day of Ramadan, it has even more significance on a Friday during Ramadan.  The Israeli government has also been attentive and careful to who and how many they may or may allow into the compound given the current tensions.  Throw into the mix that Hamas has been encouraging Palestinians to rally and wreak havoc on Friday.  So, once the temperature is taken on what is actually happening in the Old City and within our group, we decide to take a walk around before we return for our closing sessions.  It is a fitting and emblematic conversation to have as we wrap up our time together.  We find a spot up on a roof where we can see the Dome of the Rock and the compound from afar.  It just the small group of us – participants who have some from the US and Canada; mostly Jews, but not all; most have been here before, but not all … and a few of us rabbinic types and our Israeli Jewish and Palestinian guides.  I can sense how full and fatigued we all feel from the people, ideas, emotions we encountered and the ways they made us all shapes and sizes of comfortable and uncomfortable; clear and confused; hopeful and hopeless.

At our last formal session, we sit with Gershon Baskin and Samer Sinjilawi.  Samer is a Palestinian political activist who has lived the Palestinian narrative and considers himself part of the political opposition to Mahmoud Abbas and his government. Gershon Baskin is a writer, thinker and political activist in his own right.  Baskin may be most well-known for his involvement through the years as one of those people who create secret channels of communication between Hamas and the Israeli government.  (In fact, in the midst of our conversation he whipped out his phone and read a text from a Hamas contact he received a text from the previous evening?!). The idea for this session was to look forward, to ask and hear from people in the know to tell what may be next beyond this terrible war.  Baskin is convinced that there has to be a Palestinian state … from his perspective Israel cannot expect 2 million people to live locked up with 80% poverty and keep quiet … the unfolding reality that there will be a Palestinian state … there is no situation where the occupation continuing is an option.  For Samer the chance for a Palestinian state moved from 0% pre-October 7th to about 5% now.  Not high, but for him it is something to hold onto … Israelis and Palestinians are both the bad guys in this situation and the conflict has turned both to darkness … it is time for Palestinians and Israelis to rescues themselves, “we need to go back to humanity.”

I cannot say for sure if these sentiments left us on a hopeful note.  The words and the ideas behind them point us in that direction, but we also have either acquired or deepened our sense of the myriad of complexities and stumbling blocks that stand in the way of getting from here to there.  

Its funny but around this intense trip I have found myself re-watching Ted Lasso – some fun, positive brain and heart candy to give myself a break.  One of the episodes is called ‘It’s The Hope That Kills You.’  The idea of hope is a theme throughout the whole show.  It has been an interesting juxtaposition of the way that the idea of hope (its abundance or scarcity) has also been a theme of this trip, as well.   There were places and moments during the past week that I felt it and others where I was bowled over by the lack of it.  In all of those moments, I heard people whose abundance or scarcity of hope was grounded in what they believed to be true and essential.  Whether they felt connected or disconnected to them, it was those values that held them.  And that truth is what resonates at the moment for me, that as messy and unrealized as those values may be, steadfastly keeping them as the true north of our spiritual compass is as important as ever.

Day #7 – Complicated – Israel/Palestine

14 March 24

One of the the things we have heard from pretty much every person who has spoken with us – and something we confirm with each new piece of information or perspective on life here – is ‘it’s complicated.’  Somehow, some way when it comes to trying to respond to a question or summing up what it is we need to know we hear some version of this short, simple phrase.  Sometimes it is uttered in exasperation or exhaustion, sometimes in frustration or anger and at other times in simple wonder and awe for the ways that (to steal an image from yesterday) this crazy one big, ball of string ties itself into interconnecting knots.  

We had a small taste of the knottiness and nuttiness today.  

Weirdly, I need to start by explaining to you that Israel does not have a 911 system.  When there is an emergency, there exists no formalized, state run system for emergency responders.  There are ambulances and police there to address these needs, but there is a gap in the administration of getting from the moment of crisis to the professionals that could help.  And so, in an example of one of the most wonderful things about Israeli society, what has evolved in its place is a private donation funded, volunteer (Volunteers are Jewish and Palestinian) organization that coordinates trained first responders to be on the scene of an emergency call within 90 seconds.  It is called United Hatzahalah. So, with that information in mind … 

We traveled down south the the Bedouin town of Rahat.  We were there to learn more about the work done there to support the Arabs living in the recognized and unrecognized Bedouin towns and villages in that region.  We met with Aisha, a young Bedouin woman, who coordinates some of these efforts and also shared how this community has been impacted by October 7th and the war.  There were Bedouins killed on October 7th.  There were also Bedouins who heroically risked their lives to save lives on October 7th, as well.  To hear these stories told from an Arab perspective moved us all deeply. 

After that meeting we headed north back to Jerusalem, for our tour of United Hatzahlah.  We stopped at an unforgettable plaza off the highway.  Think of your average turnpike plaza, with a few restaurant options,  a falafel place, McDonalds and Aroma (kinda like the Israeli version of Starbucks) a gas station and mini mart.  It was ‘meh’ at best – easily the least memorable eating moments from the last few days.  The redeeming culinary moment for me was the stop in the mini mart and the purchase of a container of an iced coffee that I remember fondly from my time living in Jerusalem. And speaking of Jerusalem, onward we went for a tour of the first responders headquarters, United Hatzahlah.  

We arrive at United Hatzahlah and are swept up in their impressive and coordinated presentation of this incredible place.  (Including color coordinated orange walls and swag to match the orange vests worn by the first responders.)  And, the work they do is incredible.  They literally save lives because they have a highly evolved system of volunteers, dispatchers and technology that enables them to get to injured people quicker than anyone else in Israel.  They, too, had an October 7th story about their work and how their first responders rushed towards the scene of terror – of how their Jewish and Palestinian volunteers rushed to help and preserve life.  I was both awed by their organization and the work they do and I wrestled with the contrast of how they told the story of the ways that Arabs and Jews worked together on October 7th and how Aisha told us that story earlier in the day.

In any case, the tours wraps at the control room.  We get to witness the massive, high tech, well oiled machine of screens, phones, computers and human beings receiving emergency calls from across the country.  We watch as they answer phones, study maps, enter urgent data and get their volunteers to where they need to go. We can see the number of ‘active’ calls, the statistics from the day and the week, and there is even a list of current ‘events’ on the main screen.  One of the events was listed in Rahat.  (If that name does not sound familiar, scroll back up a couple of paragraphs, because we were just there.)

When we return to our bus, we learn why Rahat was on the control room screen listing current events.  Some 40 or 50 minutes after we left our unforgettable little lunch stop, a Bedouin man entered the mini mart where I had just grabbed my iced coffee and stabbed a soldier purchasing his own snack.  As we reacted and reflected on this freak of timing, we also all grabbed our phones to see what the news could tell us.  In the category of ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, there was an image of that same, dinghy little plaza (complete with golden arches)… and in the foreground there was the distinctive orange vest of the United Tzahalah volunteer who, of course, showed up on the scene while we sat in the very place that received the call.

Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, Palestinians … terrorism, heroism … small, inconceivable, improbable gaps between life and death.  It’s most definitely complicated.

Day #5 – Trust – Israel/Palestine

12Mar24

October 7th was a day that changed so much in the life of people who live here. Life already possessed its challenges and the events that day simply intensified those challenges. We spent our day with a few different people, most of whom remained committed to the hard and important work they are doing.

There is a small, but significant population of human beings who do not fit into the most notable demographics in Israel and Palestine. There are workers who are imported to fill some of the working class jobs in the labor force that need to be filled. These individuals are not Jews or Arabs, but people who fit the ‘other’ category. They find themselves without access to many basic rights and privileges. There is also a population of asylum seekers — mostly from Sudan and Eritrea — who find that Israel is the most accessible place to them as they flee persecution and oppression. The people at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants try and help these people who have made courageous choices for them and their families and struggle to navigate a system unfamiliar and truly not set up to accommodate them. They live and embody the mitzvah/obligation to remember the stranger.

There is another population in both Jewish and Palestinian communities who need support, education and advocacy – women. Ladaat works to promote healthy sexuality and sexual and reproductive health by ensuring that all individuals (Jewish and Palestinian) have full access to information and are supported in making the right choices for themselves. In the midst of the war, here is a group that embodies collaboration between Palestinians and Jews and sees beyond the limitations of national/religious/cultural identity to serve the human beings in need.

In sitting with people from both of these organizations, we heard the challenge that these organizations faced in the way that October 7th impacted their work. We also heard their commitment to staying that course and their faith that their work still had meaning and could make people’s lives better.

I wish I felt and heard that when we also toured Jaffa that day. Our guide and host, Abad, was a multi-generational Jaffa resident, Palestinian citizen of Israel and current city council member. He regaled us with stories of Jaffa’s history that was his own family’s history. It was a history – as he told it – that held both beauty and heartbreak. Unlike our other encounters for the day, Abad did not leave us – directly or by implication – with a sense of a commitment or hope for the future. As I listened to him explain that he would not be running for council again, because for him after October 7th and the ensuing war that ‘politics is dead’. For Abad it was ‘irresponsible to hope’ because ultimately he feels that the lives of Palestinians just do not matter and that in the end ‘they will come to get us.’

I heard echoes of Black Americans writing and talking about how their bodies and lives are not worth as much as white ones. I felt echoes of Jews fearing (throughout my life and in the last few months) the footsteps of antisemites who eventually will again rise up to threaten and decimate the Jews. I don’t mean for these echoes to compare or relativize this poor man’s fear and pain for himself, his family and his people. What I do intend is to not so quietly suggest and shout and scream: we all want and need the same things, why do we human beings continue to do what we do to one another?!

I can only hope and pray, that somehow in some small way, the small group of human beings bearing witness to his desperation may offer some piece of strength, comfort or (dare I say) hope.

Day #4 – Together? – Israel/Palestine

1 1 March 2024

We find ourselves in Akko/Acre today with the intention of exploring a city that has both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs living there. Even as I write those words to try and describe the people who inhabit this city, I am reminded that everything is complicated here and there are layers upon layers to explain the complication. I mean – to more specifically say – we visited a city in which live a significant population of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. Complicated because there are differing categories of citizens here (Jewish and Palestinian) and different categories of Palestinian (citizen, resident, refugee.). Alaa – a multi-generational resident of Akko – guides us through the city, trying to explain its politics, socio-economics and culture from his Palestinian experience. Perhaps, his story is most clear- or maybe most impactful – when he describes his decision to send his children to the ‘Jewish’ school. Even though the state provide education for all of its citizens, there is a marked difference between the nature of the resources that each schools receive. And, as we can imagine, there is a payoff for a better resourced community for his children. It has been a place where his children are an Arab minority, with the expected schoolyard discrimination that comes with those who are different … that has only been dramatically enhanced since October 7th.

From Akko we move to Daliat Carmel which is home to the one of the larger Druze communities in Israel. The Druze are a fascinating people. They seem to sprout from the Muslim tree, but depending on who you ask they may or may not be Muslim. They are very protective (even secretive) about the nature of their religious tradition. The one tenet they share is their fundamental and whole hearted belief in reincarnation. They are certainly Arab and are the only Arabs within Israel who are permitted and choose to serve in the armed forces. They do so with great pride. It seems that wherever Druze live they do not hold nationalistic ambitions and choose to live in a way that – hopefully, within a supportive context – preserves their small community and its traditions. I find them an interesting contrast to both Jewish and Palestinian communities as the heart of the relationship between Jews and Palestinians has been about each community understands and manifests itself as a people or nation.

The more we hear, the more it is clear how October 7th and the war that has followed has deepened the distance and damage between the Jewish and Palestinian communities. Interesting, then, to sit with a community-organizing organization in which Palestinians and Jews work together to change law and policy that negatively impact both communities. Standing Together was formed before the current war and had already established a network and system to try and raise the minimum wage for Israel’s work force. It left them uniquely stationed for this current moment. For them, a Jewish – Arab partnership is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The young Israeli Jew and even younger Palestinian Israeli citizen who work for Standing Together embodied their message, that when the two communities work together to overcome challenges that face both of them, they are stronger. It felt more like a pragmatic collaboration than an aspirational one. They spoke of minimum wage and collecting supplies for those in need in Gaza as practical matters — families need better wages, people need food. In both cases, they did not realize their goals. And yet, they still spoke of the work to do and their intent to get it done.

I find myself meditating on the words we heard yesterday from Ma’oz who lost both parents on October 7th – hope is not a feeling, it is an action.

Day #3 – Context – Israel/Palestine

 10 March 2024

We started our first full day on tour together getting some grounding and context.

The grounding came in the form of some listening exercises.  In order to be able to encounter more than one narrative, one needs to be willing to sit and listen to those narratives that are unfamiliar, challenge one’s assumptions and generally cause discomfort.  Israel and Palestine is the kind of place guaranteed to push many of our intellectual and emotional buttons.  

The context came in the form of an experienced, seasoned journalist who lives in Jerusalem and has been reporting on Israel and the Middle East for decades.  As most of my (and I think the rest of the group’s) understanding of what has been happening since October 7th has come from my consumption of media, it was a great to have a media professional share their take on what we have been consuming and what people in Israel and Palestine have consuming.  Of all the conflicts our journalist friend has covered over the decades, this one has been the hardest.  The war seems to have entrenched governments and its citizenry further into their own views of themselves and the other.  Media outlets in Israel are generally not giving much attention to what happens in Gaza.  Media outlets in Gaza and the West Bank (mostly Al Jazeera) do not give attention to the experience of Israelis.  Distrust of the ‘other’ side, either as a collective or on an individual level is rampant.

And so somewhat grounded and contextualized, we were off …

First a return to Hostage Square … with some time to look around at the ways that Israeli Jews have taken over this space to keep in mind those taken hostage.  The pictures of the hostages – which are prominent throughout the city – have center stage here.  A makeshift gallery of images of the hostages adorned a tent in the center of the pavilion.  The images shared by families of the hostages were obviously taken from happy moments, and it was eerie to walk around and see images of these people from many ages and stages of life smiling back at me.  I could not help but to linger on the many 19 – 21 year olds — I assume who attended the music festival — who are the same age as my own kids.

Part of our scheduled time here was to meet with the cousin and brother of one the hostages who had been released with the negotiated cease fire a couple of months ago.  They shared with us the horror of their loved being taken by Hamas while they were visiting one of the kibbutzim where she and her family had previously lived.  Their cousin/sister ran with her child in her arms after they became aware of the attack.  In desperation and fatigue, she handed her child over to her husband so that he could carry the child to safety.  He was able to run and hide, she was not … and was kidnapped to Gaza.  We heard about the initial horrific first hours of not even knowing if she was alive.  Once they knew she was alive, they sprang into action .. working with the families forum and even creating their own ‘war’ room where they tried to come up with ways to put pressure on anyone – Hamas, Israel, etc. – who could help to bring her home.  They worked tirelessly until the very night before the exchange of prisoners, they learned that her name was on the list of those who would be sent home.  

Even though they were successful and knew the profound relief and gratitude of having her home, they continue to work with the rest of the families to maintain the pressure to work towards the release of the rest of the hostages.  It seems that part of the crisis for Israeli Jews in this moment is the broken trust in their military and government.  They are not trusted to keep the hostages front of mind and do what needs to be done to prioritize bringing them home.  As happened on October 7th  – when individuals across Israel ran and drove towards the massacre to help – they feel they must depend on themselves to step up and do what they can.  Israel has always been a place where security is front of mind, but now it is a place where when Israelis arrive at an unfamiliar place they check to see if there is a safe room and if there is enough water in it and where they could hide their kids.

We wrapped up our afternoon meeting another family member whose life was deeply impacted by Hamas’ massacre on October 7th.  Ma’oz Inon lost both of his parents on October 7th.  I was taken aback by my experience of meeting this radiant soul.  I know no better way to say it – he radiated.  This man about my own age, who parents were brutally murdered on October 7th spoke to us of peace, love and hope.  It was all incongruous with the nature of his loss and with the atmosphere in the rest of the country.  ‘Hope is not a feeling it is an action,” Ma’oz told us, “I don’t see it, I make it.”  I did not anticipate to find such radiance, and expect that I will need to keep that light in my mind and heart as the tour continues. 

Day #2 – Arrival – Israel & Palestine

9 March 2024
 
Some notes upon arrival … the juxtaposition of ‘normal’ and not normal has been the theme of my first 24 hours back in Israel.  The airport looked and felt the same, but the combination of it being Shabbat and tourism being 20% of ‘normal’ this time of year made it all too easy to navigate the often chaotic Ben Gurion visa kiosks, baggage claim and customs.  The long, lighted and iconic walkway from gates to terminal was adorned with the posters of the hostages.  I would find in the coming hours that it would impossible to hide from these smiling faces of loved ones in more joyous moments than the horrific existence they know right now.  It was a jarring and heavy addition to a walk that is often associated for me with excitement and anticipation of exploring, connection and experiencing this place.

In my effort to get ahead of the jet lag (or at least fool myself that I could), I did the thing that settles and orients me everywhere that I have travelled around the world …  I went for a run.  Today my run took me along the Tel Aviv boardwalk path just a block and half from my hotel.  It was booming and bustling with Israelis walking with families, partners and dogs.  Sitting, sipping and noshing at cafes and bars.  Again the normalcy confronted me … and I found it simultaneously affirming and jarring.  Affirmed by the energy of life and a reminder of the Israeli ability/need/coping mechanism to continue living and enjoying the joys of everyday life despite/in the shadow of/in defiance of whatever trauma or threat engulfs the nation.  It also widened my lens that is so focused on the news and images of what I read and watch and home.  Reminding me that while there are – heartbreakingly so – children who have no food, home or maybe even parents and their are children who mere kilometers away that need to get taken to dance class, need to take out the trash or want to play with their toy light saber.

And then I get to the jarring part … of the incongruity of this place (maybe of every place – there are definitely kids and families mere kilometers from my home that lack food and security.). Not far away along this very same coastline are human beings whose lives have been ended, damaged and crippled – physically, emotionally and spiritually.  And I have no idea what to do with knowledge.  That uncertainty pierces me.  I am sure, too, that if would stop my run and inquire of any one of these beach side strollers (once they got beyond the weirdness of this sweaty, bandanna clad American being so intrusive) … they would have little separation from one who was killed or taken on October 7th … or one whose life has been put in danger as were called to serve as Israel has responded.  

The ability for us human beings to shut out the other and her or his pain is both resilient and destructive … for us and for them.  I feel like Israel exists of the sharp edge of this tool in the human tool box.

My first day ended at what is currently called ‘Hostage Square.’  Since October 7th it has served a ground zero in Israel for families fighting for their loved ones kidnapped on that fateful day.  Some of the family members have taken up residence there since their parents, partners, siblings and children were kidnapped.  It is an overwhelming hodgepodge of tributes, installations, organizing tents, stages and merchandise stands. Every Saturday night hundreds of people (maybe thousands) gather to rally, support the families of the hostages and demand that the powers that be ‘bring them home, now!’  On this evening the focus of the rally that begins Women’s History Month is on the 19 women still in captivity.  Relatives of each women step up to the stage and tell us a little bit about their loved one.  It is poignant and heartbreaking.

The rally and my evening ends as a popular Israeli musical artist leads all gathered in signing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah or literally, ‘the hope.’  I know it well, having learned it a kid and having sung it at countless Jewish events throughout my life.  I wondered about the peculiarity of having a country’s anthem being about hope.  Maybe they are all about hope in some way … hope for freedom, security, prosperity.  I found myself singing along, making this anthem more of a prayer … hoping that these parents and sisters and counting and children and partners … can hold their loved ones soon.

Day #1 – Anticipation – Israel/Palestine

8 March 2024

As this trip approached a few people genuinely inquired if I was excited about the trip.  Looking forward?  Yes.  Curious?  Yes. Compelled?  Yes.  Excited? – unless I considered the chance to spend time with my brother and his family, to which the response would be a unadaulterated ‘yes!’ – my response is honestly ‘no’.  During my 56+ years on this planet – okay during my 50ish worldly cognizant years – it is the most contentious and precarious time for the state of Israel (and the Jewish community of the United States for that matter) that I have witnessed.  I am not excited.  I anticipate entering into an atmosphere of trauma, anger, fear.  And I question why I feel the need to do so.  Whatever the unique connection that we diaspora Jews have with the state of Israel, it is not my place of residence.  It is not the neighborhood in which I walk my dog.  It is not the community in which I sent my kids to school.  It is not the place where I go to work each day to try and create community and help people find and cultivate sacred spaces in their lives.  And while I don’t live there, I have lived there.  And while I don’t walk my dog there, this place has been an important slice of the pie chart of the identity of the Adam who walks his dog in wherever neighborhood he has lived.  And while I don’t send my kids to school there,  my brother and sister-in-law sent their kids to school there.  And while, it is not the community within which I physically do my work, the idea and the reality of this place is intimately intertwined with that community.

In my heart of hearts I feel that it would be easier if I could say that the past months have affirmed and deepened my connection to this place, its values and the intended manifestion of these values.  The truth is that these past months have only deepened my struggle with what this place means for me as Adam the rabbi, the Jew, the parent and the person.  As much as I struggle to figure it out, it still is an important plank in the platform that is Adam Morris.  And it needs to be examined, evaluated and tended to.

And so when the opportunity for a trip with MEJDI arrived in my inbox, it spoke to me.  I have attempted two separate Micah trips with MEJDI – one that I hoped to begin promoting in March of 2020 (pandemics, anyone?!) and one that was scheduled to travel in October of 2023 (but did not garner enough interest).  Why MEJDI?  It is their mission to travel the world – with a special focus on Israel and Palestine – while holding, honoring and creating opportunities to encounter more than one truth.  They use the term ‘dual narrative’ for their tours.  Simple, they design travel that immerses the participants in more than one story about a place and its culture, politics, sociology-economics, etc.  I know they accomplish this goal because while we did not travel as Micah with them, I did experience many elements of what they include on tours to Israel and Palestine.  These experienced were hard, provocative.  They inspired good questions and unsettling and authentic reflection.

As I anticipate the days ahead, the known ingredients in the recipe for the experience includes my trust in the mission and skill of MEDJI, my own array of feelings and ideas about this magical and maddening place and my intention to listen and be curious with open heartedness and open mindedness.  Then there will be the unknown ingredients of these next few days and paying attention to where and how they will show up.  And while I may not be excited, I look forward to, am curious about and feel deeply compelled to learn into what concoction they will combine and coalesce.

Day #0 – Looking Forward – Israel/Palestine Mar24

שָׁלוֹם!!


You are in the right place if you are looking for where I (Rabbi Mo) will post about my trip.  I look forward to sharing my experiences, reflections and reactions with you!  Our itinerary begins on Saturday night Israel Standard Time.  ‘Talk’ to you then (or hopefully, sometime not too far afterwards.)

 

B’shalom,

R.Mo