Monday, February 22, 2010

Quite A Week

I’ve finally had a chance to write some more about what I’ve been up to recently. Hard to believe it's been almost a week since my parents left because the week went by so quickly. 

This past weekend, our entire program had a Shabbat Mifgash (encounter) with a group our age, described to us as “our Israeli counterparts”. These Israelis in their early 20s will all be returning to work at various Jewish summer camps in the States as counselors and activity specialists, and they receive training from the Avi Chai Foundation.  I admit a lot of us were unsure of how the weekend would go and were even skeptical at first, but it really couldn’t have gone any better.  In just two short days, we created new friendships and bonds, while learning a lot about ourselves and about each other at the same time.

We all stayed at a hotel at a gorgeous kibbutz called Ma’ale HaChamisha that overlooks Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem.  Upon our arrival on Thursday evening, we were split into four groups, mixed between Americans and Israelis, and played some icebreaker games to get to know each other.  The focus of the weekend was talking about our individual and collective thoughts and feelings about Judaism, Israeli/Diaspora and Israeli/American relations, and the future of the Jewish people. 

One of my favorite activities was a game called “Beseder or Lo Besder” / “Okay, or not Okay”, where our group leader gave us an issue and we had to respond one way or the other, without passing or providing an explanation for our opinion. Following controversial topics, we could ask people to explain their answer and then had a back-and-forth for a couple of minutes before moving on to the next issue.  We then broke into smaller groups of 6 or 7 and continued playing, and we had a few minutes to discuss our individual points of view for each issue.  All weekend long, I was amazed at how our entire group was able to get into some real and honest discussion without becoming uncivil by shouting or interrupting one another, as is the temptation when talking about such emotional issues.

Meal times were a highlight of the weekend, and not just for the obvious reason of the great buffets in the dining hall (there was an amazing apple salad as well as delicious sweet potatoes, and of course a nice dessert spread). But the real reason I enjoyed our meals was the chance to sit and chat with the Israelis who were not in my group.  We also had some additional free time, and since it was warm and sunny all weekend, many of us sat outside and continued the discussions we were having in our sessions.

Before the Mifgash, some of us on Otzma (myself included) had thought having this Shabbaton weekend earlier in the year would have been more beneficial to us because it would have given us more time to spend with our new Israeli friends before the end of our year. But looking back at all we talked about during the weekend and the way we related to one other, I don’t think the groups would have bonded the way we did, had it happened earlier. All of us on Otzma have not only learned a lot about Israel through our various educational seminars and trips, but we’ve lived here now for close to six months and have experienced so many things just through our everyday lives that no doubt helped us connect with this great group of young Israelis.

Last Wednesday, I attended the Jerusalem Conference at a 5-star hotel on Mount Scopus.  There were sessions on all of the major issues facing Israel: Iran, the Palestinian conflict, economic growth, and American/Israel relations, just to name a few.  Among the speakers were several heavy-hitters, most notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Tzipi Livni, and Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai. 

One of my favorite speakers was Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), seen here in a picture with our own Tom Holtz. Congressman Engel spoke at length about US/Israel relations, specifically in light of the Obama administration’s questionable approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  He noted how despite his frequent criticism of the administration’s approach on policy issues, US/Israel relations remain very strong, and he spoke about the importance for American Jews to continue to lobby Congress to support Israel and US/Israel interests.

I learned the most from the session that dealt with activism on college campuses, approaching the issue differently than other seminars. While part of the time was spent discussing the hate-driven incitement on college campuses such as Concordia University and UC-Irvine, the bulk of the session dealt with problems on Israeli campuses and Israeli academia.  This issue is perhaps more disturbing than the virulent anti-Semitism being displayed by leftist groups in the States, because it speaks to the continuity of the Jewish people.  Unless and until we “clean up our own house” and recognize that Israeli college students are being subjected to the same brand of anti-Zionism as their American counterparts, we will be unable to effectively fight against the worldwide de-legitimization of Israel.  I strongly believe the key to saving Israel is educating and engaging the young people, the future leaders of the Jewish people, and communicating the severity of what’s at stake.

Bibi’s speech was preceded by the tightest security I’ve ever seen – everyone entering the hall had to pass through three different security stations, including one that swabbed people’s hands for traces of gunpowder or explosives.  The Prime Minister looked tired following his trip to Russia and his speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, but he was still very interesting to hear.  He began by noting the location of the conference, at the Regency Hotel on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the spot of the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rechavam Ze'evi, in 2001. He said he would never free Ze’evi’s assassins, whom Hamas wants released in any prisoner exchange for Gilad Schalit. He also talked about the importance and significance of having the conference in Jerusalem, the undividable, eternal capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, and gave specific examples of the kinds of economic sanctions the international community needs to enact against Iran.

And as always, a reward for those who made it to the bottom...a link to the newest batch of pictures

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Gift Of Life

It's been quite a while since my last post - it's been a whirlwind couple of weeks, spending time with my parents while they were here visiting, attending a conference in Jerusalem and a Shabbat Mifgash weekend with Israelis our age who will be counselors at Jewish overnight camps this summer. I'll write more about the mifgash and the conference later in the week, but I wanted to share a very special event from last Sunday.

My grandparents, Rose and Sol Turetsky, are the two most generous people I’ve ever met, and I am blessed to have such a special relationship with them.  About five years ago, in the midst of continual Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel, they decided to give the gift of life.  Together, they decided the best way to help and support Israel was to donate an ambulance to Magen David Adom to help save as many Israeli lives as possible.  Both of my grandparents have been life-long Zionists and have imparted their love of Israel not only to their children, but to their grandchildren as well.

I am extremely proud of all the philanthropic work they’ve been fortunate enough to have taken part in, both in the States and in Israel.  This past Sunday, along with my parents, my aunt June and her kids Chaim and Rivka, I got to see my grandparents’ generosity in action here in Israel.  The six of us visited one of the Magen David Adom stations in Tel Aviv to see their ambulance that arrived to serve the people of Israel nearly three years ago.

In addition to functioning as a regular ambulance, “Yarkon 144” as it’s called (its region and number) is a fully equipped Intensive Care Unit.  It can accommodate two patients at the same time, one on the main stretcher, and a second on an additional bench that can be converted into a stretcher that can stabilize the patient. It’s stationed in Rosh Ha’ayin, but like all other MADA ambulances, responds to emergencies in other areas as needed.

We got to sit inside the ambulance and take an inventory of all the medical and life-saving equipment available for the MADA personnel to use.  In addition to touring the ambulance, we also visited the command center, where MADA operators field incoming calls and dispatch teams to respond to emergencies.  Not surprisingly, the technology is fascinating, and we were able to watch in real time how the status of an ambulance dispatched to an emergency changed and modified with the color-coded computer program and mapping system.

One thing I had known but had forgotten was just how much of the MADA staff and first responders are volunteers. These volunteers undergo a rigorous course before becoming a fully licensed MADA, and Sam Gavzy, one of my fellow Otzma participants, has already completed more than 200 hours of training and service with them during his time here.

That's it from here - I'll have more to say and a new batch of pics later in the week!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lots of Sichsuch, Hardly any Tikvah - Lots of Conflict, Barely Any Hope

So many thoughts – where to begin? We just returned from a 5-day Otzma seminar, called Sichsuch v’Tikvah, or Conflict & Hope, about the political situation and the Israeli/Arab conflict. It was engaging, intriguing and obviously mentally draining. I consider myself pretty well versed in many aspects of the conflict, but I knew I’d learn plenty from our speakers and excursions. We met with people from all across the political spectrum, from a woman who lives in Efrat, to leftist Jews who don’t believe Israel needs to be a Jewish state to the leading advocate for human rights among the Palestinian people. We traveled around Judaea and Samaria, as well as different parts of Jerusalem and also land within pre-1967 Israel.

So where to start? I’ll begin with the only part that inspired hope – the thought-provoking, often intense discussions we had amongst our group in between and following sessions and speakers. In a group of 38, we have many differing opinions and points of view, but what’s so important is that we had these tough discussions.  It forces us to put our thoughts and opinions in context regarding how we feel as Jews, and hopefully among the next generation of Jewish leaders, making Jewish decisions. As one of my favorite authors, Daniel Gordis, notes in his most recent book, Saving Israel, it’s discussions precisely like the ones we had and will continue to have that give purpose and meaning for a Jewish state as a place where Jews have self-determination and the ability to decide their own future.

Regardless of our individual politics, it was important to see the places and things we’ve seen and speak with the people we’ve met because it helps us form our own opinions and beliefs knowing we’ve seen the facts on the ground. Some people in our group had never been to a Jewish settlement over the Green Line, or seen Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and it was great seeing my friends process these new sights. We did things and visited places people wouldn’t have even thought to do on their own, such as visiting the southern Hevron Hills and the village of Sussia, a hot spot for violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The incredible amount of information we’ve received over the past few days has given all of us new things to think about and even more important, topics and issues to learn about.

One of the highlights of the seminar was a role-play session, a mock “Camp David 2010”, with each of us having a role in the negotiations. We were divided into three sides: Israelis, Palestinians, and a contingent of American mediators, and each group had a specific issue to negotiate: settlements, Jerusalem, final borders, and refugees. We first sat with our own delegation to formulate our position on our issue to decide what we were willing and unwilling to compromise on. I was part of the Israeli delegation discussing settlements, so we received a background brief on the history of the settlements, along with facts and figures, and a list of questions to consider. We also had a map of Judea and Samaria, with all the settlements marked on it and had to decide which settlements, or blocs of settlements, were untouchable and which we were willing to give up in a peace deal.  What seemed relatively easy on the surface became very difficult in actuality.

I joined one of my Israeli delegation representatives at the negotiating table to meet with our two Palestinian counterparts and two American mediators. And believe it or not, we agreed on a deal, where the central component was that Israel would retain the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim and Giv’at Zeev and would trade some land within pre-1967 Israel a la Ehud Olmert’s proposal from September 2008. We agreed to dismantle all outposts and give the Jewish residents of the other settlements the option to remain in their houses and become citizens of a Palestinian state, or receive compensation to move to Israel proper. The Americans proposed a $5 billion fund to provide housing to Jews moving out of the new Palestinian state, and for the Palestinians to buy land, build housing, and for both to build infrastructure.  Afterwards, Ari, aka our American mediator, asked me if those were the real terms of an agreement, is that something I’d be happy with. And I told him, if it meant a real and true peace, then yes, in a heartbeat. If it meant that Jews can live without fearing for their lives in a future Palestinian state the way Israeli Arabs can be Israeli citizens, it’s a deal I’d be willing to make 100% of the time.

Now comes the conflict.  We are years upon years away from an actual deal and a real peace agreement. While I’ll be the first to admit Israel has done plenty wrong in this conflict, Israel can only do so much to push the peace process forward if there’s no real partner, someone on the Palestinian side who is willing and strong enough to make the tough concessions the Israelis have shown they’re willing to make time and time again. Any future peace agreement will be a land-for-peace deal, but look what happened when we gave up land the last time. We evacuated over 8,000 Jews from Gaza and what do we get in return? A state run by Hamas and hundreds of rockets reigning down on southern Israel.

And the sick part is that if the Palestinian Authority does hold elections any time in the future in the West Bank, it’s likely that Hamas would win there too because Fatah has almost no credibility on the street. And it’s the same reasons Hamas won in Gaza, that Fatah officials, including PA Preseident Mahmoud Abbas, continue to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money meant for the Palestinian people, for their education, economy and health care. For anyone who thinks the PA has reformed itself since the days of Yasser Arafat giving his wife a monthly allowance directly from PA funds, check out Friday’s front page story from the Jerusalem Post. (

As if that picture wasn’t sad enough, we heard from Bassam Eid, the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  He said many ordinary Palestinians are too scared to speak out against their government, and that’s why their officials can get away with what they do. He reiterated that Palestinian society needs to change from the bottom up, that’s how revolutions happen. The solution can’t be imposed from the top down.

The most infuriating session for me was visiting Neve Shalom, a “coexistence” village near Mod’in and Latrun, where Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians live together (Israeli Palestinians are also called Israeli Arabs. They are Arabs with full Israeli citizenship and live inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel). On the surface, it seems like a great idea and as someone who is volunteering with a real Arab/Jewish coexistence group in Haifa, I was excited to hear about their community. The problem is they bill themselves as an Israeli/Palestinian co-existence group, when they’re really not because they only work with Israeli citizens and also don’t deal with Jews or Palestinians living in the West Bank (and yes, there are at least two co-existence dialogue groups between those often-volatile communities).

Our speaker, an Israeli Jew, described people in nearby pubic schools, who she admitted were on the left of the political spectrum, as too “nationalistic, militaristic and too focused on the existence of Israel as a Jewish state”.  She even took issue with the fact that the army visited high schools in the area a couple of years before students would be drafted, as if it’s unreasonable to prepare them for the fact that all Israeli citizens are obligated to serve in the army. It’s the quintessential “blame Israel for all of the world’s evils” – again, there is plenty of blame to go around here, but to pretend that the Palestinians are completely innocent and that every part of the conflict is Israel’s fault is unreasonable and completely illogical.

One thing that was totally crystallized for me over the course of the seminar is the inability for many on the left, and certainly vocal advocates for a Palestinian state, to acknowledge the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. If a Jew can say, “I believe the Palestinians deserve a state of their own,” why can’t Arabs say, “I believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state”? How is that not a double standard?

This all, of course, was before she said she didn’t think Israel should be a Jewish state, and instead there should be a bi-national state, which is code for an Arab majority erasing the Jewish quality of the state.  But the clincher was when she admitted that there’s really not much difference between Hamas and the “supposedly moderate” Fatah. Not much difference between a terrorist organization whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, and the political government the world is convinced is a true partner for peace?

One of my favorite sessions featured back-to-back speakers discussing how Israel is viewed around the world, via both the media and the government’s own initiatives and work. We heard from Gwen Ackerman, who covers Israel for Bloomberg News, and David Segal, who is the Chief Policy Advisor to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister. I obviously love hearing from journalists their thoughts and feelings about their work, especially covering a conflict as intense and closely followed as this one. But as much as I enjoyed Gwen’s stories, the speaker I learned the most from was David Segal. Talk about a wealth of information. Whether it was in his opening statement or answering questions, he added the most to my list of new things to research, in terms of Israel’s economic partnerships with countries and organizations around the world, and even with the UN.