This week's blog post is written by Will, a Yahel fellow living in Lod.
Like many diaspora Jews, I grew up with a deep connection to Israel, caring for the country even though I did not set foot on its soil until I was 19 years old. While I am grateful for my Zionist education my, I am disappointed at the lack of available spaces that honestly deal with the history and current reality of the state of Israel. Too many Jewish and Zionist spaces within the diaspora offer only a shallow, connection to Israel that is void of any criticism or mention of the tough issues facing Israel. As a result, many Israeli voices are left out of the conversation between Israeli citizens and supporters of Israel abroad. I find myself, like many young Jewish adults of the diaspora are, looking for spaces and initiatives that allow me to wrestle with the reality, the accomplishments and shortcomings of the Jewish state. Simplistic experiences that fail to include voices from across the spectrum leave me with a sense of incompleteness. My experience on Yahel, however, has no shortcomings when it comes to the exposure of voices and opinions on the problems and solutions that Israel historically faced and is currently confronting. The diversity in perspectives we encounter is the fellowship’s greatest strength. From our seminars, our placements and learning activities, here are some of the examples of the ranges of voices I have heard since coming here six months ago.
Our seminar in the North focused on various social change initiatives. During this seminar we met with Zakaria Mahameed from the Center for Shared Society, Rabbi Dov Holtz, from the local Garin Torani Chapter, as well as James Grant-Rosenhead from Kibbutz Mishol. Zakaria Mahameed is an Arab citizen of Israel whose work focuses on building a shared society and creating dialogue between Jews and Arabs. He spoke to us about the difficulties he encounters in his work along with the achievements that have been made. Rabbi Dov Holtz hails from the Garin Torani, a movement of Religious Zionists who come to impoverished areas around Israel and establish communities with a focus on volunteering in order to strengthen the cities they come to. Rabbi Holtz spoke of his efforts to promote social change as an educator as well as many of the views that are held by many members of his community, such as the belief in a Greater Israel and support for the nation-state law. On the other hand, James Grant-Rosenhead spoke to us about Kibbutz Mishol -an urban socialist kibbutz that has reinvented itself to adapt to the 21st-century economy. While James and Dov are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they manage to find ways to collaborate on projects that they both find can improve the society they live in.
On our seminar in the Negev, we had the occasion to visit development towns and Bedouin villages. The history of the Negev is a harsh one: 90% of the local Bedouin population was expelled during the 1948 war and the State of Israel created “development towns” to house Jewish immigrants from North Africa, India and Romania- often in horrible conditions. These development towns, along with the Bedouin villages, are still part of the social and economic periphery in Israel. While some conditions may be improving, poverty and social deprivation remains high. On this seminar, we got to visit the development town of Yerucham and hear the story of an immigrant who arrived from Morocco in the early 1950s, back when there was no electricity and severe food insecurity. The next day, we paid a visit to the recognized Bedouin village of Segev Shalom and the unrecognized village of Al Zarnog. In Segev Shalom, we met local residents who are engaged in social change initiatives within their community while in Al Zarnog, we had the pleasure of meeting activists working to get Bedouin villages recognized.
While I have decided to focus on the speakers we interacted with on two of our seminars, I will also note that during our time in Lod, our cohort has had the pleasure of hearing from a variety of voices including the chief of a local police station, the CEO of the local Garin Torani chapter and an activist advocating on behalf of the Eritrean community. Lastly, our involvement in various placements allows us to interact with members from different communities and learn about the various organizations that are active in Lod along with the social change initiatives that are taking place.
My interactions with voices from across the spectrum and with locals from a variety of backgrounds has been an enriching experience. At times, it has been challenging and even frustrating as I hear of visions that are drastically opposed to my values or am met with a discouraging reality. Most of the time, I simply find myself learning about issues that I did not know about and hearing voices I am seldom exposed to. Through each interaction, whether in a formal or informal context, I get a glimpse of the lives of the people of Lod and Israel. I learn about the issues residents are facing and hear suggested solutions. At times, this helps me unpack the multiple layers of complexity linked to the reality of local life. More often than not, though, I find myself adding even more layers that I had not been aware of before. I believe hearing from so many different populations has helped me better understand Israel as well as the steps that are necessary to implement positive change.