Giselle Fernandez: A quest for understanding
As we digest news of what could be an “understanding” with Iran and what could be a historic nuclear agreement with the “enemy,” volatile rhetoric ratchets up on all sides, dividing the Jewish community here at home and the world over, making Israel more and more a divided partisan issue. This at a time when unified support of our only Jewish state is more needed than ever.
This region of the world once more so mired in paradox. We want peace but defy any innovative peaceful means to achieve it. Even the attempt at diplomacy is blasted as naive, even though the opposition offers up no fresh alternatives or options, just relentless fear and incendiary criticism.
Who doesn't want peace, new possibility, hope for a new way? We all do, just as we fear the consequences of trusting the tyrant.
I embody this unpalatable paradox within me; this thirst for heaven but paralyzed by fear of a hellish reality. As a humanist, I want to believe finding common ground might open new doors, making a most impossible peace, possible. As a realist, I am afraid for my people and for Israel.
It's daunting to even share these sentiments because of the incendiary politics, but both the pursuit of the ideal and a reality of fear, live in me as true. What I long for could prove perilous, but to crush any hope for change, goes against the grain of my being as well as my highest aspirations and belief in mankind. So how do you see through this quagmire, this deadlock that paralyzes a path to peace always?
In a most recent trip to Israel, I was deeply inspired by a unity and cooperation I encountered in our homeland that transcended politics that so inspired me and might now serve as such needed inspiration to see our way through these new challenging times.
Here in this writing I offer a very personal account of my visit to Israel. I hope it helps all who know her well to reconnect with her vital spirit and all she stands for in the world, not just as a Jewish imperative, but as an imperative for all humanity. There is a humanism at work, a reach across the divide that deeply moved me and shows what's possible in an impossible reality. What I experienced has gone missing from the narrative and it's her soul and sacred story that must not be forgotten, most of all now as we weather yet another assault to Israel's security.
Amid all the political turmoil and terror that threatens this land, I found at every turn during my visit, quiet, behind the scenes individual acts of human kindness, unity and cooperation that are so worth mention as they transcend the heated impenetrable politics before us.
In a state surrounded by enemies, where a new brand of escalating hatred in ISIS mutates the dynamics of barbarism to new heights — where violence and war threatens the existence of this vital democracy every day — where Arabs and Jews cannot resolve how to live together in peace and polarizing viewpoints are paralyzing — where a possible nuclear deal with Iran divides us more than ever and now a two state solution is off the table, I found it so astounding, miraculous even, I would be exposed to such darkness and yet see so much light.
I'd been to Israel before as a CBS news correspondent covering Saddam Hussein lobbing scuds into Tel Aviv and marveled at her spirit and saw first hand how critical America's alliance is to her security. But this trip was very different. I can't explain it. It was as if some cellular history was activated within when I landed this time and spirits from the ages alerted every atom in my being I was home — not just my home, but home to us all. I'm really not trying to be poetic, it just was that poignant.
This was not an immediate epiphany, it was rather a day-by-day unveiling and revelation that would emerge to me as Israel's greatest grace — that despite pain and peril and polarizing politics, she unfathomably prospers — that individual acts of humanity show us the possible — a look in the mirror where we see real hope in action. The following is a day by day account of my travels on a quest for understanding and knowledge so I could discern for myself what's at stake.
I was part of an elite delegation of bipartisan and multi-faith Latino leaders, invited by a bipartisan pro-Israel lobby, that invites influential leaders of diverse communities to visit Israel with the hope we will return and use our influence on Congress to champion strong bipartisan U.S. Israeli relations. It was a most remarkable group, not only because of individual achievements and influence in Washington, but because we all shared a like mission to empower our communities and champion the rights of the under served. We were a diverse group; Catholic, Jewish, Republican and Democrat. It was almost emblematic of a unity despite differences, we would surprisingly find mirrored back to us in the Israel we would come to know, not just a divided one too often depicted in headlines to the exclusion of all else.
The timing of our trip was most interesting. But when isn't it in this region of the world we were told. We were arriving with Israeli elections just a month away and Prime Minister Netanyahu rupturing further already strained relations with President Obama by accepting Speaker John Boehner's invitation to speak before the new Republican Congress on Iran. The colossal breach of protocol at such a divisive time in Washington was causing an uproar at home and threatening to polarize Congress even further, not to mention worse, weaken bipartisan support so vital for longstanding U.S. Israeli relations.
If the politics surrounding the timing of our trip were not enough to give pause, ISIS was raging in full terror in the news and about to burn a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage for all to see, kill a young American girl volunteering in the region and soon would complete mass beheadings of a Christian delegation. In Israel herself, Hezbollah just weeks before fired rockets killing two Israeli soldiers in the sharpest escalation between the two enemies in years. This was the barbaric backdrop unfolding in the Middle East as we were set to travel.
When I voiced concern prior to departure, it was met with what became a usual response from those who live these threats daily. “This is Israel.” It wasn't an easy decision to go. I was outraged by Netanyahu's decision to address Congress. I had Jewish friends discouraging me from traveling with AIPAC and was urged instead to align with other more lenient lobby groups pushing for more diplomacy with Iran than the hard line sanctions AIPAC advocated and a more responsive two state solution to Arab interests more in line with Jewish American sentiments. I was too new a Jew to make sense of the divergent Jewish factions in America and where I stood in it all.
I'm Jewish by birth but did not grow up Jewish. I returned to my faith when I adopted my child and got my Bat Mitzvah at fifty. I was not exposed to the years of indoctrination to all the divergent diatribe that has shaped so many staunch opinions of many around me lucky to grow up in a Jewish household. I have just tried to make sense of it all as I connected more and more to my Jewish roots and have found it a quagmire to wade through. What I have always been clear on is America must stand strong along side Israel strategically in the region at all costs — that our shared democracy and pursuit of peace above all is imperative.
I was hungry for more understanding and this intensive education promised on this visit compelled me to go.
The line up of diverse speakers promised opposing perspectives and esteemed experts and leaders from all fields to shed light on the most pressing issues; the elections, Iran, Arab interests and the surrounding threats from enemy borders. I wanted to learn if a nuclear Iran really is the threat that Netanyahu portends or a posturing scare strategy for his re-election.
Is our President brave and visionary to pursue more diplomatic resolutions with Iran — a country that chants “down with America, death to Israel?” Who is right here? What can lead to peace? I wanted to learn.
Upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport our Hispanic Leadership group embarked on what would be fully packed days from one end of the country to the other to see with our own eyes the precarious geography of a sliver of land positioned on all sides by enemy nations. Seeing it on a map is one thing — looking across from Israel into Gaza or Lebanon or Syria with your own eyes is another. So close, so daunting, surreal. Upon our arrival with the sun just setting, painting the horizon gold, we traveled by bus to the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem where we promptly checked in at nightfall as the lights of the Old City beckoned. We were all so excited to be here on such sacred ground. We checked in and raced to our first briefing over what would be the first of many sumptuous Mediterranean feasts. The welcoming topic, “Why a Jewish State of Israel is so Vital.” It took everything I had to concentrate on the discourse as each course of delicacies distracted me from our first discussion. Marinated heaps of lamb, chicken, beef, Israeli salads, olives, crisp juicy red peppers and Israeli cucumbers in a sumptuous spread would come to define the culinary adventure of our week here. Whatever was unfamiliar we were told was most likely eggplant — all sensuous and scrumptious to both feast your eyes upon as well as your pansas (tummies in Spanish). Amid those first bites, Dr. Einat Wilf, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, through prowess and persistence powerfully set the stage for our week ahead. The Jewish connection to Israel dates back 3000 years and despite millennia of exile and persecution, at last the Jewish people were able to re-establish their homeland in 1948 and serve as a refuge for Jews from around the world.
We discussed the positioning of this precious democracy and how Israel has had to fight to justify her very existence and survival ever since her creation. After robust discussion and dessert, we were offered an enchanting trek through the Old City at night with talk of Jerusalem's rich cultural diversity. There was not one weary jet lagged soul among us on that first night's arrival who didn't muster a second wind to walk through the Jaffa Gate, the “eye of the needle,” into a biblical time of ages past. I didn't know if it was the time change or the sheer seduction of actually standing within this exotic city of the Bible, but this is where I first felt that sense of the mystic, that soul connection I spoke of to all that's holy and all who've come before.
We were walking upon ancient stones of a walled city in the footsteps of sages who walked thousands of years before us, and I quietly felt a calling on this first nights arrival from a well of souls within me, not just my own — I felt somehow a link between then and now that would serve as a bridge into the future. It felt awesome and privileged. It was just night one. It reminded me of that saying, “those who have gone before us are blazing a trail through the ether.”
The next day at the crack of dawn we were up for a primer on Israeli politics followed by a guided tour of the Holy Basin, the Mt. of Olives and the Old City. Our amazing tour guide, Uri Goldflam, offered the perfect depth of history, context and perspective with contemporary relevance and a touch of needed humor to arouse the eye lids when inescapable jet lag loomed. As we looked out at the Mt. of Olives, Uri reminded us that only very revered souls are buried in this sacred mount, but there are exceptions made. He told how recently the young men from the Kosher market killed during the Paris Charlie Hebdo massacre were just buried there as an example. It was an alarming wake up call; another bridge between the ages I just referred to so poetically, which morphs into the pathetic and preposterous, how this peril still rages today and claims young lives. This same hatred in a distorted name of what's holy has decimated so many before us and now rears its barbaric head once more to such frightening heights through Europe and most notably France where Jews are once more fleeing in fear for their lives, some finding refuge I was told in Israel. As I stood in this sacred city, the past, present and future stared me in the face as I looked toward the new burial ground just in the distance on that sacred mount — where those beautiful boys with so much to live for were just laid to rest, killed for simply being Jewish. A rush of thoughts assaulted my brain. It's inescapable here when exposed to so much history that relives itself.
Radical racism, perceived separateness, supremacy above others — when will this unconsciousness end, whether against Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, women. Overlooking that mount, these were the thoughts that rushed in. I couldn't help but think of our boys back home taken down for such stupidity; Trevon Martin, Michael Johnson, Eric Garner. We always espouse “never again,” and again and again it happens in different iterations the world over. Martin Luther King's words filled me, “injustice anywhere, injustice everywhere.” Do we learn nothing from our past? It took me back to a dinner recently in Wyoming where a couple from California, unaware I was Mexican, began a rant against Mexican immigrants. “It would be OK if they could just be more like us,” they said. When I said I was Mexican, they said, “we of course are not talking about your kind of Mexican.” When you are in Israel, the hotbed of history that offers such a glaring mirror to our shared humanity and inhumanity, you can't help be inundated with a piercing shame that the past is still the present.
In a complete juxtaposition, music and jovial celebration echoed below us and snagged my attention to the festivities in the streets. It looked like traveling minstrels singing and dancing through Jerusalem. It was a Bar Mitzvah taking place with family and friends as is the custom here. In fact, there were several going on at once; so different to the huge and costly ceremonies that marks this right of passage in the states. I marveled at the joy and release of blue and white balloons that would soar above the Old City as a young man bopped up and down on the shoulders of a proud father and family.
All the juxtapositions of thought, joy and pain were staggering. We then set off with great anticipation to the Western Wall. What can I say, I welled up in tears as my hand found its way through shoulder-to-shoulder women to touch what's left of our sacred temple, where I leaned into her stones and prayed along side women of all ages and races. I only learned later of the controversy surrounding women at the wall. I'm thankful I experienced it as I did. It felt profound. I prayed silently for all I long for in unison with those who prayed aloud in Hebrew and in chorus with birds singing loudly above us perched in the cracks amid millions of embedded paper prayers that I sensed could be my own. Children, my own daughter's age, played in the square in the sun as the flags of Israel waved blue and white in a breeze. It was beautiful and some of my lovely new friends hugged me as I couldn't help but cry. As a Jew, it was overwhelming to my spirit and soul's calling to be here at our precious Kotel — in this, our homeland, our treasured hard fought Jewish state, the place every year at Passover we recite, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and here I was. I felt the heroism of my history, the heartache of our heritage. Deeply appreciative to stand and be present and aware that where I stood, stood for so much, for so many. It was just so deeply moving. I felt so proud to be Jewish.
It was no different the next morning for many of new friends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, invited to pray before dawn in a special mass arranged just for us. Ascending those venerated stone stairs to this sacred sanctuary in candle light, to the very site Jesus was said to have been crucified, which treasures his tomb from which he is believed to have risen. This was clearly for most of our delegation a soul experience of a life time, just as the Wall was for me. I felt humbled to bear witness to their deep faith and worship as they knelt in prayer or stood with their hands and eyes raised and uplifted to the Lord during this extraordinary service taking place just for them. Some read from the Bible during the mass and all received communion. As a human being, no matter your faith, you can't help be moved by the depth of humanity, humility and holy history you experience and witness here. To emerge into the sunlight of the new day and look out over the Dome of the Rock equally takes your breath away — it's overwhelming to pack so much sanctity into one morning. It's simply surreal to the senses and spirit, trying to take it all in. This Muslim shrine is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his Night Journey to Jerusalem. It's the oldest surviving mihrab indicating the direction to Mecca in the world, believed by many to stand directly over the Holy of Holies of both Solomon's Temple and Herod's Temple. Jews believe the rock to be the very place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and was spared by G-d.
To stand before it all, to actually see it, breathe it in — the sacred sites where all faiths and histories overlap, intertwine and interconnect — it's shattering the realization we are at war. You can't help not see ourselves in each other, feel a deep sense we all belong here. How tragic and preposterous it is that peace is beyond our reach. Israel is like an onion you pry and cry through layers upon layers for understanding — only to meet a continual presence of paradoxes that exist side-by-side.
We would visit the Church of the Beatitudes where Christ looked out upon those gorgeous waters of the Galilee and recited his Sermon on the Mount. We went to those shores and collected holy water in bottles where so many miracles in the Bible are said to have taken place. “It's right here overlooking these same mountains and seas,” Uri stated, “that Jesus performed his miracles, where people of all faiths throughout the ages came then and still today to honor their faith and share like values.” “This,” he said, “is Israel.” We trekked up through Masada — a symbol of supreme Jewish heroism. Under attack by the Romans, Jews here refused to be taken and enslaved and chose instead to take their own lives and those of their families in a brave act of defiance that would define our transcendence for ages. Masada was a story not only of suicide, Uri explained, but more significantly, of Jewish claim to these ancient lands. I asked Uri why the Jews were always so hated. “We are different,” was his answer. The words at that Wyoming dinner rang in my head,” if they could just be like us.”
Our visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem, of course devastated the soul. It was a heart wrenching afternoon. But once again always a paradox of horror and hope present in every aspect of this history. While there, a group of young Israeli soldiers were touring the museum, as required to do twice yearly, so they fully understand why they risk their lives every day for this country and their people. I captured such a poignant picture of them gathered near a sign that read “Liberated but not Free — that is the paradox of the Jew.” True then as it is now. Always present, a bridging of past and present and threat to the future. All in the hands of these young brave men and women who inspired in us all such pride. They defend not only their land, but a region in the world whose protection impacts us all. Of all the many horrors depicted there that tear at your core and reduce you to shame and unspeakable sorrow. One that cut deep was the return of the MS Saint Louis that arrived to America with hundreds of Jews who could have been saved. America sent them back knowing of Hitler's atrocities. It was hard to hold and inexplicable to reconcile.
Shamefully, I could not bare all the incomprehensible inhumanity on display. No matter how many times you see it, or know you must look at it square in the mirror, I had to turn away. But one image that really startled me was a picture of a then 17 year old emaciated Elie Wiesel taken while imprisoned in Auschwitz. I had recently interviewed the 83 year old Nobel laureate and author of so many books including his most famous, “Night,” whose life's mission to keep these memories alive through his own Holocaust Museum and Foundation have contributed so much to the world. To see him in an old faded black and white photograph on these walls was crushing because he was that bridge, still alive, connecting me to the realness of then and now. I stared at that picture of him and recalled us just sitting before hundreds not too long ago in a fancy hotel in Washington with him in a fine suit speaking of courage and forgiveness. I had asked him how it was possible to forgive such atrocities. He told me it was a decision. He could either choose to live a life enslaved by rage or choose gratitude. I asked him what we have learned from the Holocaust when we see genocides and acts of racism continue across the globe. “We must not just remember,” he said, “we must actively promote tolerance and engage young people to raise their voices against injustice and racism of any kind” — that silence and apathy are complicit. I thought of the antisemitism erupting once more throughout Europe with such a vengeance and without more uproar in America and around the globe? How can we stand by silently and allow once more radical Islamic terror to grow within among us as in France and then be surprised by attack?
In France and more and more in Europe, the enemy is not without, we've allowed it to grow within. These are the thoughts that force their way in as you walk through the past and feel her ominous presence in the present. When you leave this architectural masterpiece of a museum, the heavy gray slabs of concrete that house such darkness make way to a cascading rush of light brimming through towering triangular openings and light the walkways to an outside veranda where lush beautiful vistas of Jerusalem await. This is Israel.
In a beautiful Shabbat dinner hosted by a lovely family in Jerusalem, all of us were welcomed so warmly into a Jewish home to share in the celebration of the Sabbath. We watched as the mother and father blessed their boy before dinner, as is the custom of this night, and it moved many to tears at the table. This American couple who welcomed us had made “aliyah” to Israel, a move to live a more elevated religious life here. Both were teachers of Torah and chose to raise their family here. Before us they blessed the wine and the bread and sang the traditional “Shalom Aleichem,” welcoming the angles of peace among us on the eve of the Sabbath, which is one of most beautiful songs sung on this night. All learned of the distinction of the Sabbath's sunset-to-sunset respite from every day life and mandate to turn inward for reflection and toward family in celebration of creation. We heard of the parents pride as they spoke of their son's military service, but also of a mother and father's dread and daily fear for their safety.
Our travels gave us such intimate windows into the hearts of many here and they are so worth mention because their lack of mention leaves us an impression there are no bridges between people here. There are, and they transcend the politics in ways that change lives. One of them was the most remarkable pediatric hospital for children with heart problems who come from all over to be saved with specialty surgeries at no cost to the families. It's the “Save a Child's Heart” program at the Wolfson Hospital. Here, kids come from all over Africa and most remarkably from enemy Arab states. One child from Gaza was here with his mom who clearly understood he would have died without the Israeli intervention to care for him. As a mother myself, I reached out to this boy's mom wearing a Hijab, standing by her son's bedside and for a moment held her hand in mine and looked into her eyes with an understanding without words between mothers. I felt her deep emotion but also the inherent paradox of having to turn to her enemy to save her son.
When I asked the lead surgeon, who runs this program and operates on these these kids, how it's possible to receive these children from enemy territories, he said it happens all the time — that he does not see the ethnicity, race, religion or politics of a child in need, he sees a beating heart in need of saving. Even the daughter of a top leader of Hamas in Gaza is also said to have been admitted into an Israeli hospital for emergency treatment. In fact, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the most senior leaders of the Islamist group in Gaza, is said to have had several family members who have sought treatment from Israeli doctors. The head of the recovery home for these kids described it best, she said, “in some ways we are our own United Nations at work every day.” We also met a young doctor in training from Ethiopia here who sported a billion watt smile. He was almost through with his internship and about to return as the only pediatric cardiac surgeon in all of his country. He expressed such pride in purpose in now what will be made possible as a result of his experience.
I was blown away by the benefactors of this facility and the partnering family recovery home that cares for the kids while recuperating after heart surgery. It's like a Ronald McDonald House in the States. American founders like Eli Broad and others had their names in scripted in the wall. We are the most generous country in the world, I thought, and I felt so proud to be American and know we had a hand and heart in this place that saves blessed children who would otherwise never have a chance. We visited the Yemin Orde Youth Village, an innovative educational and spiritual approach to restoring wholeness for children in need. It's a home for broken and abused kids who are received again from all over the world. Whatever war, abuse or break down that sent them here, this was not just an institutionalized facility to house damaged souls, this was a home to heal them. The founder's core philosophy is restoring wholeness of being. He's made it his life's mission. There are no throw away children here and this home does not turn them away at 18. All are welcome for life, can get married here, stay on and work, return to visit with their children and remain connected if they wish like family forever.
Our tour guide was one of those children who arrived with a huge wave of immigrants from Ethiopia as a young child. She told her story as we sat in a hut that served as a replica of the kind of home in Ethiopia she grew up in and had to flee. A powerful reminder from where she'd come. Her parents could not assimilate so easily once they arrived and she would find herself a home at this Youth Village and never leave. She now works here and is raising her child here. She is emblematic of the realities of Jewish persecution and immigration and the long road to refuge in a new life, in a new homeland so thankful to reach but so hard to find your way in. This home helped her find hers and now she shares her story with pride and purpose with all who come to visit and learn. How I marveled at her story and those of millions of immigrants from more than 100 countries who've been received in Israel.
Since its founding, this tiny Jewish state with limited resources has absorbed millions and serves as a safe haven for Jews from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and those still today fleeing persecution, whether from Yemen, Africa or now more from France and Europe as dangerous antisemitism rages anew. As a Latina American, passionate about immigration reform in our own country, I couldn't help but feel inspired by Israel's embrace of so many who seek refuge here. It's no panacea — there are many challenges here I am told, especially with new arrivals from Darfur. But still, Israel has been a beacon of embrace for so many and even with all its challenges she has opened her doors. I could not help feel ashamed to have just sent back all those thousands of women and children who recently arrived at our own doorstep last summer, fleeing for their lives from the perils of Central America. Many never receive even the fair hearings for asylum that is our promise, and instead experience something called “rocket docket” court cases that spin mothers and children back as fast as they arrived without a legitimate hearing to assess their claims. G-d knows what they returned to. I couldn't help but feel their plight more powerfully as a consequence of all I was seeing here. Our Latino delegation couldn't help but see parallels in our shared challenges, not just on immigration, but on a shared understanding that Latino issues are America's issues in much the same way Israel's concerns must be America's concerns.
When I first embarked on this educational mission, I must be honest; I questioned the importance of Israel being included in our national Latino agenda. We have so much that needs address regarding an alarming lack of access to education in our community, much needed capital to grow our businesses and desperate need for leadership roles to represent our many interests. I couldn't imagine where Israel fits into our conversation. I had to come here to get it. I'm reminded of my Mayan studies and a greeting that so applies, “In Lak'ech A la K'in.” It's the Maya's living code of the heart which means, “I am you and you are me.” It's a statement of unity and oneness. That's how I felt each day here the more and more examples of individual heroism encountered. We met amazing women especially contributing so much to the world with their innovations. One was Sivan Yaari, who literally knocked our socks off with technology she developed to extract water from desert that she shares with villages in Africa, completely transforming life there. We met an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mark Levy, who founded Expanding Orthopedics in Israel who has developed as many as twenty patents for new technologies to help human beings everywhere receive more advanced orthopedic remedies.
We met this remarkable entrepreneur who, out of his living room just outside Tel Aviv, created a website for discovering, sharing and preserving family history. His website, MyHeritage, has 80-million users, 1.6-billion profiles and 28-million family trees. One of the most daring examples of heroism for me came from Gal Lusky, CEO of Israel Flying Aid. Talk about defying the politics of the times, this young mother flies in the face of fear literally to bring aid into Syria where women and children refugees are in dire need and where ISIS, Iran and the Russians are becoming more and more pervasive with each visit. She told us she wears a veil on her missions to hide her identity and pays for fuel there now mostly in Iranian and Soviet currency. The need is grave, she told us, and the threat to Israel ever present and growing. She told me her own child understands why she must go — that other children need her too, especially those mangled by bombs, in need of prosthesis and live in despair. When I ask how she does it, how she deals with the fear, she says she is committed, period. Many of the young people we would meet came from the “Technion” in Haifa, a world class university known for its stunning futuristic advancements in technology and medicine, or the renown Tel Aviv University, a thriving Mediterranean center of diversity and groundbreaking discoveries of all kinds. It's true, if you want to get a sense of tomorrow, look to the young people in any land and you will see the future.
Those we met here inspired such faith and made us all feel like quantum un-achievers.
This applies also to two women members of the Knesset from opposing sides we would also meet. They were young vibrant voices grappling with ancient divides and colossal issues, but they inspired with fresh and passionate advocacy and a kind of contemporary courage and command that once more, is an impressive example of the vital role women play in society here.
Ayelet Shaked, Chairwoman of the the right wing Bayit Yehudi faction, supported Netanyahu, is against the peace talks with Iran, very critical of John Kerry and a known voice empowering Jews in neighborhoods with an influx of African migrants.
In her opinion, the only reason peace talks broke off with the Palestinians was not the plight of settlements, but because the Palestinian Authority refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
We also heard from Merav Michaeli, an Israeli journalist turned politician now serving in the Knesset as a member of the opposition Labor Party. At the time, she offered her own leftist, much more hopeful view for peace. A month before elections, she rejected the notion Israel had moved inexorably to the right. Netanyahu's victory has proved otherwise.
It was interesting to read of her narratives though, regarding Israel's need to reconcile its past, both with the Holocaust and “Nakba,” the Arabic name for the deaths and expulsions of Palestinians and destruction of their villages at the founding of Israel. She envisions a democratic Jewish state but one that allows all of its citizens to “live peacefully together with equal rights.” When asked about Netanyahu, she says “his government has exploited fear, substituting a blame game for real security.”
Two emphatic voices on opposite sides that addressed divergent view points on Netanyahu and over what's possible for a two state solution. So much has changed since our travels. The speech has been made, the Prime Minister has won and prospects for a two state solution aced from the narrative.
We spoke with two Palestinian women who shared their plight of occupation victimized under Israeli rule, their lack of access to water and fear for their children's future. I so wanted to identify with them, they were articulate women, mothers, desperate too to live in their own state and determine their own fate. How could you not empathize with them, want for them equal rights and ability to live freely as we all dream and know is right.
Both said they longed for a two state solution. The problem they agreed is the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State.” One of the women said, “it's not for us to say you're a Jewish State, that is for you to say, not us.”
We did not have more exposure to Palestinian voices and I wish we had.
But seeing Israel so sandwiched by terror on all sides, I admit it was hard for me to stay open to other points of view when radicals from within and without don't want you to exist. As a humanist, as a decent conscious human being, the ideal of course is mutual respect but I have to admit, I felt paralyzed by my own inner fear and deeply conflicted. This is a place where compassion could be deadly and suicide bombers could kill your kid on a bus, I found trust and compromise challenging to reconcile.
I was surprised at myself — almost ashamed that I, a devout democrat and humanist, leaned here to the right. It's easy from America to weigh in, but if my child boarded these buses daily, would I feel so trusting? What a quagmire to reconcile. The same feeling pervades in reference to a deal with Iran. I so want to be brave and believe and trust but I admit my fear. It's one thing to say make that unprecedented deal living in America. It's different if my child were boarding that bus.
It's not lost on me Israelis live courageously every day.
We stood at the border of Gaza on a Kibbutz hit by incoming missiles last summer. We saw the stock piles of corroded weaponry and the shelters that dot every corner in the event sirens sound. We looked a short distance to where tunnels were constructed with abundant supplies Israel sent to Gaza to build schools and infrastructure, only to be used as tools of terror against them. We saw the piled up missiles shot into Israel. We stood at the Israeli Lebanon Syria border with Major Sarit Zehavi at Dovev, in the North, who outlined just in the distance a constant encroaching threat of Hezbollah and Iran where a recent attack took place.
Perhaps one of the most memorable speakers was Lt. Colonel Roi Levi from the IDF who looked right out of central casting, sporting the ideal image of Israeli military power and pride. It was his stories of occupying Gaza and his empathy for the Palestinians, especially their children, that moved me deeply. He spoke of his mandate to defend Israel and his prowess in doing so, but also spoke with heartfelt empathy of the destruction of life he witnesses there on patrol. It's so different than when Israelis governed there, he said, and oversaw the building of universities, businesses, a thriving economy, life.
“Today in Gaza, under Hamas,” he says, “there is nothing.” The refrigerators are empty, the children and young people left with no work and nothing to do but hate and blame. He says his troops under his command warn for weeks of impending assault. They drop flyers and sound warnings in advance to no avail. “Hamas leaders,” he says, “shamefully use their children as pawns and propaganda to demonize Israel.” The realities of his command, he says, effects him deeply. He, too, is a father and says its unconscionable, what the leaders in Gaza do to their people, to their children and then blame Israelis for the blood shed.
When it came to Iran, we got differing view points from significant experts. Dr. Emily Landau, expert in nuclear proliferation and the Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, couldn't be more clear. Iran has the pathways to a bomb and America doesn't get it. She insisted on an urgent need for severe sanctions and said President Obama’s pursuit of diplomacy and this impending deal was naive. “Iran,” she says, “is empowered to control the narrative and that creates a most dangerous proposition for the region and the world.”
If we were looking for much needed context, perhaps it was our privileged visit to the Peres Center for Peace located in Jaffa — in this exquisite architectural masterpiece of a building made up of concrete slabs layered and lifted between openings of light that symbolized so much of what we experienced as Israel. It soared above the ocean and operates as an independent non-profit, non-political organization whose aim is to find peace in the Middle East by empowering all to work together. Shimon Peres himself, former President of Israel, twice prime minister, Nobel prize winner for negotiating the Oslo Accords with Rabin and Arafat, could not have received us more warmly or with a greater sense of hopefulness.
At 91, still brimming with timeless charisma, he greeted each and every one of us individually, took selfies with us and countless pictures, seeming to understand the modern ways of honoring his legendary significance and statesmanship. He spoke quietly with candor, context and calm about key issues we explored on our visit. He said it was a mistake for Netanyahu to speak before Congress. He praised President Obama's leadership, alliance and support of Israel, as one of the best in history and questioned why Obama is so criticized. He brought up Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist Toni Morrison's writings, and seemed to say he believes racism is at the root against him. He praised America saying we are a country that gives far more than it takes and he talked of peace being a long and difficult pursuit but ever possible. When I asked him about Iran, he expressed no alarm. It was an aside at the end of our visit but said with no urgency, “we're on the right track.” It was a short but impacting encounter. He's a man of peace period.
I think we all felt it — the privilege of engaging with a legend, one of the founding fathers of Israel at the helm of so much history here, who is the very symbol of transformation and the possible. He would start out as a hawk and transform into his country's most prominent dove. He is considered a man of reconciliation, an example of shifting positions when in the best interest of Israel and of engaging with our Arab and Palestinian neighbors in a relentless pursuit of peace. It was a most powerful and poignant way to end our journey here with so much to think about, absorb and integrate.
Our final stop, before our flight home, a baptismal plunge into the Dead Sea, the Salt Sea, ten times as salty as the world's oceans. Its saline content reaches up to 35 percent and boy do you feel and taste it! It's rich in minerals and rich in biblical significance. It was a bit cold and slushy on the feet, but the buoyancy that cradles you effortlessly and bounces you like a ball above the waters, is otherworldly and leaves your skin smooth and soft as if scrubbed in an ancient spa.
It was not easy to say goodbye. You can't come here, speed learn all this overwhelming data with such significance to humanity and share how deeply it moved you and not be changed or bonded for life. I know I've made new friends, both on the right and left, and we've found common ground as passionate champions for Israel. I left the Holy Land intent that a unified Congress must do the same.
But as I feared that was not to be. Upon my return, post speech and election, we are more divided than ever and US-Israeli relations severely strained, our leaders more enemies than allies.
No matter where you fall on it, whether you think he was brave, or brazen, right or wrong, on the Left or Right, Netanyhu's tactics and victory ignited a deep divide in the Jewish community along party lines. A deal or no deal on Iran will divide even more. Instead of coming together when we need to most, we are taking sides and I so fear that when divided, we fall.
How distracting from what is our soul and sole mandate; to protect this vital democracy in the Middle East and this precious jewel that is our Jewish State, holy land for all humanity and key to world peace. When all seems hopeless, I think back to the heroism and humanity I experienced in Israel and I am fueled by the courage and character of those whose stories I have shared. I can only hope we evoke their vision and conviction now to see ourselves in each other as we weigh all before us and dare to be brave as we seek new pathways to peace.
Throughout this writing, I've often reached for a necklace that hangs on my heart that I had such fun haggling for in the Arab quarter. It depicts the Old City in silver. It holds such memory and meaning for me, this place that is a light unto all nations and now a light that shines in me. Shalom and In Lak'ech Ala K'in (I am you).