Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gam v'gam: Both Sides Now

Hope from the Holy Land

It’s been a while since I returned from a trip to Israel feeling hopeful. My last trip, three years ago, was characterized by a sense of ongoing frustration and near despair.

As you undoubtedly know, I’m a hopeful kind of person. I try to find the good in each situation, aiming to give people the benefit of the doubt. But the last time I was in Israel, it was hard to find something positive. Attending the Hartman Institute, listening to speakers, visiting with Jews and Palestinians, friends and family, I heard a common refrain. No one could see a way out of Israel’s challenges, whether political, religious or economic. For a while it seemed that Israelis had chosen to avoid the difficulties. The tide was against them, and it was all they could do to tread water.

This summer I attended the Hartman Institute again and have arrived home with a wide array of experiences. I met family in different cities with different political views, learned with scholars providing insights into the different sectors of Israeli society, visited Lod and Sderot, towns on the periphery of Israel’s mainstream center, and heard Members of Knesset (MKs) from the newest government coalition.

The best way to characterize what I heard is the phrase ”gam ve-gam” which  loosely means “this – and that.” Journalist Ilana Dayan used this phrase to describe Israel today, a country of many sectors, many ideologies, a place of paradox and contradictions.

She talked about Israel’s culture of negotiation and argument. She pointed to issues of security vs human rights, social democracy vs capitalism, Jewish vs democratic state. Obviously, these binary distinctions are not necessarily in opposition to each other, but they often come into tension.

This is exactly what I heard too, a world of contradictions. And that in itself is hopeful, because it means that healthy debate is alive and well in Israel again. People are engaged once again.  I heard MKs talking about creating a state based on values and a Knesset where, behind the scenes, people of different parties study together and have coffee together. I heard everyday people who are doing inspiring things:
  •  university students living with and organizing impoverished Jews and Arabs to advocate for better town services; 
  •  owners of CafĂ© Yael, a “social business” in Sderot that trains at-risk youth and offers them job skills and support to create a foundation for their future;
  •  Bambi Sheleg, a prominent settler-turned journalist creating a magazine, Eretz Acheret, (another land) that “goes beyond the headlines” and documents the diversity of Israel’s population;
  •  Dov Lipman, an orthodox rabbi who made aliyah to Israel from Baltimore and is serving in the Yesh Atid party as a bridge between the ultra-orthodox and the secularists, and others.
You might be wondering what people were saying about Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to renew the peace process. In early July, most people had not seen any progress that was worth putting their faith into these talks. But MK Tzipi Livni, who is Israel’s Minister of Justice and lead negotiator to the upcoming talks, insisted that an agreement is necessary for Israel’s future. When asked, are you optimistic, she said, “Yes I am, because I have no choice.”

In addition, she made an assertion that Jews outside of Israel should pay attention to. She told this pluralistic group of rabbis, serving many different kinds of Jewish communities in America, Canada, South America and Europe, that the dialogue with World Jewry needs to change. Specifically; it should include a discussion of values. Livni added, “What good is a homeland that doesn’t allow for this dialogue?”

Contradictions, dialogue, debate, paradox. Those are hopeful words, words that honestly describe the human condition in our post-modern age. They speak of respect for differences and appreciation of nuance. They are ideas that our own polarized American democracy could also find useful.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner