This year in Jerusalem…

From Nigel Savage


April 6th, 2017 | 10th Nissan 5777

This year in Jerusalem…

Dear All,

The last year in which I didn’t set foot in Israel was 1984. My visits have encompassed the days of the asimonim, the devolution of the currency, and the tech boom of the last ten years; also being attacked in the first intifada, suicide bombs in Jerusalem, and the period after Rabin’s assassination. In relation to Israel, since 2003 Hazon has produced 16 Israel Rides, five Siach Conferences, a hike, two intentional communities trips, and three Sustainable Israel tours.

That’s the backdrop to my trip last month, which was one of the more interesting I’ve made.

I was there for a Hazon Sustainable Israel Tour followed by a four-day Encounter trip. Each involved meeting activists and leaders, learning, asking questions. These are some of my impressions.

First: Israel is thriving, struggling, inspiring, complex. People live in such geographical closeness to each other, yet there is such radical cultural separateness – different religion, language, clothes, food, politics. While we were there we got a sense of what it is like to eat if you are blind (at Na La’Ga’at); we learned about the remarkable Bedouin initiative Wadi Attir; about food insecurity and the inspiring work of Leket, led by the indomitable Joe Gitler; and about the dignity of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in Tel Aviv. We met an extraordinary Ethiopian leader, Yuvi Tashome, who is doing remarkable work in Gadera. We saw three superb short films at the Ma’aleh film school. We had a superb presentation from Dr. Jeremy Benstein of the Heschel Center. We walked around Lod with Avital Blonder, whose non-profit Jindas is aiming to use public/private partnerships, on a significant scale, to improve the civic fabric of one of Israel’s poorest towns.

The highlight for me personally was meeting Martin Weyl. He is the Vaux and Olmsted of 21st century Israel – the man who retired as director of the Israel Museum and, in his retirement, turned a gargantuan waste dump into what is now Gan Sharon, the Central Park of Israel. (You can watch a fascinating TEDx he did in which he explains some of this.)

So Israel seems to have more idealists and visionaries and entrepreneurs – social or otherwise – than any place on the planet. It is booming and growing and shifting and it is fascinating and as ever I love being there.

It is important to start with this because it is too easy, from outside of Israel, to see the country through the lens of “Israel and the Palestinians.” Not everything is to do with “Israel and the Palestinians.”

But of course to write this is also to say: “don’t think of a pink elephant.” The phrase subverts itself: it is true, but it then leads, inexorably, to the question: but what about Israel and the Palestinians?

On our Hazon trip we saw first-hand that although healthy connections between Israelis and Palestinians are few, those that do exist are important and can be inspiring. We went to Roots, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project just outside Gush Etzion, and met there with Shaul Judelman and Antwan Saca from the Holy Land Trust. Shaul is a follower of Rav Menachem Froman z”l, and the idea is that those who love the land – Jews, Muslims, Christians – can and should connect through that love of the land. This is consonant with Rav Melchior’s teaching on a number of previous Hazon trips. Antwan and Shaul and their friends are creating a tiny oasis in a large existential desert, and/but the hope they provide is disproportionally important.

And we went to Kibbutz Ketura where, on Friday night, after shul and dinner, I hosted a panel with students from our closest partner in Israel (and the lead beneficiary of our Israel Rides), the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Of the four students: one was Israeli Jewish and orthodox; one Israeli Jewish and secular; one Palestinian Muslim, from Tulkarm; and one American Jewish, from CT. All four were fascinating as they described living together, learning from each other, pushing through difference. Their challenge, each of them, is to maintain their sense of self, to give honor to their own families and traditions, yet also to expand their sense of possibility to encompass the real lives and views of people no longer abstract, but living alongside them. As I chaired this session at one point I forced back my own tears. These are the tears that arise when, against all odds, one sees goodness and hope and the possibility of a better future for everyone. AIES is a phenomenal program and I’m proud of the several million dollars that our riders have raised for it these last fourteen years.

So these were the main lessons of the Hazon trip. And the example of the AIES students, in holding their own narratives, yet opening themselves to learn from the narratives of others, was a useful segue into the Encounter trip.

Encounter is an easily misunderstood organization. Its purpose is that American Jews should at least listen to Palestinians. Doing this can be to suffer whiplash: in a single session one can experience anger, sadness, inspiration, rage, despair, empathy, confusion, clarity, joy, fascination, and hope. Certain parts of this encounter with Palestinians justified Israel’s actions for me more deeply than a conversation with any Israeli Jew ever could. It was astoundingly hard for almost all of the Palestinians we met to acknowledge why there is a security barrier, i.e. a wall; why there are checkpoints, why their movements are circumscribed. How can Israel be expected to act with generosity towards Palestinians if there is such little regard for the safety of Israelis, such non-acknowledgment of the price borne by everyone, Israeli and Palestinian, on account of the suicide attacks, the bombs, the knifings, the truck that mowed down young soldiers at the tayelet? The central repeated point of every Palestinian we met was: Take down the checkpoints. Remove the wall. We wish you no harm. We just want to get on with our lives. There was not much understanding for the Israeli question in response: What do you think an Israeli Prime Minister should do or say following the first murderous attack after taking down the wall and the checkpoints? Bibi Netanyahu is increasingly unpopular amongst Jewish Israelis, not only on the left but also in the center and the right, and yet ongoing tacit support for him hinges upon this one central non-acknowledgement on the Palestinian side, a non-acknowledgement that justifies Israeli actions for a wide majority of Israelis and leads them to what under Mrs. Thatcher in England was known as TINA – There Is No Alternative.

But despite this, there are alternatives, and it is clear to me that in some ways Israel is wrong as well as right, mistaken as well as justified. Single actions – a checkpoint, a decision, a choice – reveal two Israels, two modes of being, two intentions bundled together in that single act. One of them is self-defense, entirely justified in my view. But the second – not shared by all Israelis, probably not even by a majority – is rather different. It’s a form of discrimination towards the Palestinians, an ongoing hostility, a determination to create facts on the ground, a refusal to acknowledge Palestinian rights or the consequences of Israeli actions. It is many small decisions that add up to a larger encroachment. Part of it may be the wish that they, Palestinians, simply not be there. Part of it might be a positive commitment to the land of Israel. Part of it is a post-Shoah mentality. Part of it is fear. It is enabled by Jewish bubbles – our own media, our own calendar, our own Shabbat table conversations. If we have our own roads and our own lives we can pretend that there are not Palestinians here too. But to the extent that the Palestinians are real, and not going anywhere, and have lived in this land in some cases for many generations, this is not merely fanciful on our part but also self-destructive. Do we wish to encourage enmity or to reduce it? That is a crucial question, perhaps the most important prism through which to evaluate our choices. If we do wish to encourage enmity then, by all means, let us proceed in our present policies. As the old saying has it: if you don’t change the way you’re headed, pretty soon you’ll end up there…

Conversely: if we do wish to reduce enmity then we have to be both honest and courageous. Simply showing respect to Palestinians is a not immaterial beginning. Listening. Helping. Investing. Expressing empathy. Finding ways to build relationships.

I must add: I have been in my life very reluctant to criticize Israel, certainly from outside the country. It is my friends, and now my friends’ kids, who are in the army. I pay no taxes, I risk nothing. I hate the absence of humility amongst diaspora critics of Israel. This trip affirmed me in my empathy for Israelis and my understanding of the risks and challenges they face. But it nevertheless enlarged my sense of empathy for the Palestinians as well, and the two things are not zero-sum.

And this, of course, leads me to seder night. Much will be said this year about freedom, about the rights of immigrants, about pharaohs, then and now. But the central arc of the seder is about leaving Egypt, not as an abstraction, but to enter into Israel. We are descended from a wandering Aramean who walked the length and breadth of the land of Israel. We recall the rabbis, learning in Bnei Brak as they hide from the Romans. We use the language of Israel in recalling the land of Israel. And we pour the messianic fifth cup, believing against all odds that this coming year will be better; that this, indeed, will be the year we get to be in Jerusalem.

Our board member Ruth Messinger likes to quote this line by Heschel: in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible. Seder night is our reminder of the responsibility inherent in freedom. We are free to avert our eyes, but must strive not to do so. We are free to give in to despair, but must not do so. We have the unique freedom of living at the time of the third Jewish commonwealth, and it is irresponsible – in my view – not to use this freedom to engage in all ways with Israel, to visit, to learn, to support, to lean in. “BDS” – boycott, divestment, and sanctions – is wrong-headed for all sorts of reasons, and at its worst is simply an attack on Israel, unfair in all respects. But for those who think that BDS can somehow cause Israel to be or to do better, my comment would be that it is simply the wrong way round. We need to visit, not boycott; we need to invest, not divest. We need to learn, not shy away.

In one of his books, Herman Wouk quotes the French philosopher, Julien Benda:

“Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing.”

What is true of “the most insignificant writer” is true also of each one of us. We cannot legislate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but we can nourish a new and different state of mind, starting with our own decision to commit to hope and honesty, rather than despair or evasion.

Finally – and in totally different vein, if this is all too large: use your freedom this year to commit to eating eggs from chickens that have lived happier lives.

Yes. It’s one small thing for us, but it’s doable, we will be healthier and we’ll start to change the egg industry in this country. The egg that’s on your seder plate: have it be a healthy one, and make a decision, post-seder, only to eat good eggs.

If you want a handout for your seder that will explain this, here it is.

L’shana haba birushalayim habnuyah. May we next year be in a rebuilt Jerusalem – one in which we live in harmony with our neighbors, with our animals, and with the land that sustains us. May it be so…

Shabbat shalom, chag sameach,


PS One last Israel thing: we now have over 160 people signed up for our next Israel Ride, this November. It’s on track to sell out, so if you were thinking of joining us, now’s the time. Today only, get $125 off when you register with the discount code PASSFLASH. Offer ends at midnight EST.

Also, our Passover seders are sold out, but you are warmly invited to join for Shabbat and last days at Isabella Freedman! Register here.