NSWJBD/Honest Reporting Israel Mission Days 7 & 8
20 people, 31 points of view, 8 days, over 20 destinations and 12,000,000 kilojoules.
From Lynda Ben-Menashe, Community Relations Manager NSW Jewish Board of Deputies
It’s very hard to capture in words the depth of the experience I have just had on the JBD’s second Israel Mission with Honest Reporting. We billed it as a study tour and that it was. Each day we examined up close and personal heavy issues like Settlements, Security, Human Rights, the Peace Process, Bedouin in the Negev, BDS, Media and Lawfare.
Missions are intense. Ours was especially so, challenging long-held conceptions and misconceptions and provoking emotional responses in everyone, even unexpectedly. Over our last two days we took an incredible full day trip up the Jordanian and Syrian borders with IDF Major Eliot Chodoff and met Dr Michael Harari (more below) and heard from MK Rabbi Dov Lipman; Common Ground Chair Boaz Nol; IDF Colonel Bentzi Gruber; Daniel Seaman, formerly of the government Press Office and finally, Prime Minister’s Office Spokesman Mark Regev.
Here’s a brief overview of just four aspects of our Mission overall:
The security barrier
We all know why it’s there. Construction began in 2002 after almost 1,000 Israelis had been blown up in the horrific suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. 96% electronic fence and only 4% wall – most of us already knew these statistics too. One of the things we didn’t know was that more than half of its ‘gates’ – border checkpoints – are now staffed not by the IDF, but by private security firms. We knew it had reduced terror attacks to almost nil.
But we weren’t prepared for our emotional responses to two things: the sight of Palestinians passing through those border checkpoints (at the time we visited, returning home to Kalkilya from work inside Israel) and the commentary of the young IDF commander of the whole West Bank area, who told us about the emotional toll doing his job along the barrier and inside the West Bank takes on him and on his soldiers.
Hebron and Gush Etzion
People have strong views about ‘The Settlements’. In our group we had the usual spread, and most of us were prepared to have our own confirmed. But that’s not what happened. People who went in expecting to reject the case made by the ‘hardliners’ in Hebron were moved by the thoughtful commentary of our guide, David Wilder and the spiritual experience of sitting inside the Cave of the Machpela. There I saw a safe made by my own old-time Israeli family, Goldman, reminding me of my own family’s presence in Hebron since the earliest times and the murder of an ancestor in the 1929 massacre.
Ex-New Zealander Michael Lawrence challenged the views of many when he presented the lucid case for the settlements of the Gush and took us to see his own beautiful town, Neve Daniel. He didn’t avoid discussion of the extreme and violent minority of ‘Price Tagger’ settlers, whose actions tar everyone and are condemned by all the others.
And this was characteristic of the Mission as a whole: we didn’t avoid the tough questions. We saw the good and the bad. We saw Israel in all its colours and doing so made us stronger, not weaker. We set out to better inform ourselves and we came away both better informed and more determined to put the case for Israel in all its nuance.
Peace Now was a case in point. Most of the group did not agree with the viewpoint expressed by Melanie Robbins, the speaker from Peace Now. But all of us learned something from her. It might have been a fact or figure, or a level of respect for her group’s sincerity or a recognition of their essential Zionism. Even if many felt Peace Now’s energy is misdirected and their focus neglectful of the impact of the PAS’s incitement to genocide on ‘prospects for peace’, we all came away enriched by the experience of engaging with them.
Israel treating Syrian patients
By now you probably know the story of Israel’s humanitarian work treating Syrians, mostly children, who scramble across the border with the most horrific injuries. You know because the wife of Australia’s Ambassador to Israel wrote about it in Israel’s press and also because we took journalists on our JBD Journalists Mission to meet Dr Michael Harari and they wrote and spoke about it in our local media.
Our group met Michael too and he left all of us both shaken and inspired. An incredible person, Michael was born and trained in Melbourne. He is of Egyptian and Syrian Jewish background, so he speaks Arabic. His main point about treating the Syrian patients was how unexceptional it is. First he said they are just human beings and patients – the hospital makes no distinction that they come from an ‘enemy nation’. Second he said the hospital, like Israeli hospitals generally, is full of Arab patients – and that the staff at Ziv is in fact one third Arab, one third Jewish and one third Druze. This means there are dozens of Arabic-speaking specialists including psychiatrists, social workers and medical clowns to help the children. We got to Michael through my friend Dr Harvey Belik, another ex-Melburnian who spoke to our group the next day about his own work as part of Israeli teams who’ve brought care to Haiti, Ethiopia, African migrants in South Tel Aviv and now The Phillipines.
Meeting Michael Harari was a definite highlight for me. But here were so many highlights. Dave Sharma, the Australian Ambassador over dinner at the incredible Spoons restaurant in Jerusalem, run by ex-Aussie Hila Solomon; Colonel Bentzi Gruber, who spoke to us about the IDF’s Ethics in the Field and made the toughest man in our group cry; newly-elected Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who described the massive civil rights, education and electoral reforms being introduced; Suleiman Khatib, Palestinian jailed by Israel for ten years and founder of Combatants for Peace; and Boaz Nol, nephew of JBD Executive member Roma Shell, who inspired us with his group’s plans for Israel’s future based on grassroots social action.
Every organization’s Israel Mission is incredible. Our JBD-Honest Reporting Israel Mission is different in that it is a study tour only and not a fundraiser. But most of all, it is a life-changing experience that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish participants from all along the political and religious spectrum in an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry, deep respect, commitment to Israel – both people and state – and also tremendous fun.
All of us left Israel with increased knowledge, skills, commitment to speaking up for Israel – and at least 3 extra kilos each.
For information about the 2014 JBD-Honest Reporting Mission, email firstname.lastname@example.org