Spread The Good News

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 01, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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‘Summertime,” Gershwin used to say, “and the livin’ is easy.” Not the summer of 2006, though.

The summer now fading was just about as uneasy as it gets. Still, through the fog of war, the contrails of the jets, the smoke and fire of the bombs, other and very different stories were unfolding. Here, two such:

Early reports, fueled both by our fears and by the sometimes-inflammatory rhetoric of some of the Arab members of Israel’s Knesset, led many of us to believe that most Israeli Arabs were rooting for Hezbollah. It was particularly distressing to realize that even Hezbollah’s rocketing of Palestinian towns and villages did not elicit robust condemnations from the domestic Arab community.

By war’s end, those of us who have been involved in the ongoing struggle for the equal treatement of all Israel’s citizens were rendered glum. Surely in the wake of so bitter a war, the hard feelings of division would linger, stalling even the trickling progress of recent years. No matter that half the Israeli civilian casualties were Arabs; they’d rooted for the wrong team, deserved a harsh rebuff, an icy cold shoulder.

Or so it seemed until last week, when a Dahaf Institute poll reported that while 40% of Israeli Jews believe that most Israeli Arabs favored Hezbolllah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and another 15% believe that all Israeli Arabs did, Nassralah was in fact favored by only 18% of the Arabs.

Some Israelis resisted the conventional wisdom and chose to rise to the complicated occasion. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a letter by Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency of Israel, to Brian Lurie, chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues:

“I am writing with the purpose of sharing with you an extraordinary experience I had last night at a large camp operated by the Jewish Agency together with the Noar HaOved V’HaLomed Youth Movement, on the banks of the Yarkon River, which currently includes 1,000 children from the north. This camp will continue to provide services to sessions of 1,000 different children every week.

“In this camp, we have brought together children from both Jewish and Arab towns throughout the north. The common thread that links them is the shared horrific reality of war forced upon the State of Israel by the Hezbollah terrorists, affecting them all, regardless of whether they are Jews or Arabs.

“In spite of the difficult circumstances under which things are happening, we have chosen to deal with the issues in this unique educational and social way in order to provide a platform for dialogue and creating new connections between Jewish and Arab children who have found themselves in a common fate under the horrendous threat of war.”

And another example, among surprisingly and reassuringly many: The San Francisco federation sent waves of grants to their partnership region in the Etzba Hagalil to help the residents of that target region. (Almost a quarter of Hezbollah’s rockets, more than 900, fell in or around Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in its regoion.) A large portion of the the third such wave went to Israeli Arab citizens in Tuba, a Bedouin village near Kiryat Shmona, and to Rajar, an Israeli Arab village on the northern border.

For the most part, Arab towns and settlements lacked shelters, and few Arabs had families they could bunk with away from the war zone. Even in “normal” times, unburdened by the stress of war, the sad facts of the second-class citizenship of Israel’s Arabs are inescapable. Israel is still very, very far from having figured out what to do about its 20% Arab minority. But at least here and there, there’s a serious effort at outreach, at inclusion.

Another summer camp, less dramatic: The Boston Jewish community sponsors a program called Teens for Tzedek. The program brings some 40 teenagers, half from Boston and half from Haifa, Boston’s “sister city,” together for three weeks in Haifa and another three in Boston. During their time together, they tour a bit and do volunteer work in a variety of social welfare agencies.

This summer, of course, was different. The first rocket struck Haifa early in the program, and the program’s base was immediately shifted to Jerusalem. But there was no talk of canceling, and there were no defections. A good, and meaningful, time was had by all.

And, presumably, new friendships were formed that will last for many years to come.

Israeli-Diaspora relations is one of those topics that is the Jewish programmer’s equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a comfort food for thought. For more than a few years, symposia on Israeli-Diaspora relations were the main form of Israeli-Diaspora relations, serious people from both sides of the oceans gathered to weigh the problem and issue recommendations.

Teens for Tzedek, to use the current buzz phrase, shifts the paradigm. Instead of talking about the relationship, it offers the thing itself: You want a close relationship between Israel and the Diaspora? Then, in a word, relate. Do stuff together.

Winston Churchill famously said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears.” Teens for Tzedek, as also a number of somewhat similar programs, sets the blood and tears aside, and offers toil and sweat as a way of bonding. And one need only see the interaction among the youngsters at the program’s end, as I chanced to in Boston, to see what shared toil and sweat — and dorm rooms and tour buses — can accomplish by way of making an abstraction manifest.

So true, it was a summer most wretched, but tucked away in its corners there was also and in spite of everything, hope. Grab hold of that; there’s not all that much of it around these days, so it’s wise to celebrate what there is and spread the good news.

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