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Baby Steps in Nazareth

It’s not that conversation here (I write from Jerusalem) is about existential questions. In fact, there is little such talk. But the existential question, like a miasma, is everywhere, inescapable. The response approaches the bi-polar, grand visions of Israel’s might and power one minute, dismal perceptions of Israel’s alone-ness, its vulnerability the next.

Such understandings may be more available to visitors than to the people who live here. Visitors (as contrasted with tourists) look for patterns, are implicit anthropologists. Their eyes and ears are sensitive — perhaps too sensitive — to nuance, to the unspoken, to the casual remark.

A counterpoint is useful, perhaps even necessary. That is why, among my very special joys, when I am here at the right time, is the annual celebration of the work of the New Israel Fund. (Disclosure: I served for many years on the NIF board, and am now a member of its international advisory council.) The celebration introduces to the assembled — activists, supporters, friends — some of the “stars” of the many organizations NIF supports, and the work they and their nonprofit organizations do to advance civil society here.

Because this year’s event took place in Nazareth (which gives me the chance to write, “last year in Jerusalem”), very many of the people called to the stage were Palestinian Israelis. Some examples from this year’s gathering:

Nabila Espanioly of Nazareth, founder and director of the Al-Tufula Pedagogical and Women’s Empowerment Center in Nazareth. Herself a member of the NIF board, she is about empowering the disempowered, with a special (though hardly exclusive) emphasis on Israel’s Arab citizens. She is known throughout and beyond the NGO community, and when I first met her some years back, I came away from our meeting, from hearing her speak of her educational ideas and practices, thinking that she called to mind Dr. Janusz Korczak, one of the greatest heroes of the Jewish people in the 20th century. Korczak’s principal educational idea was precisely the empowerment of the children he taught in the orphanages he directed. In his books, ranging from his novel, “King Matthew the First,” to “How To Love A Child,” a book that in some respects anticipated Dr. Benjamin Spock, he explicated his ideas. Poland and UNESCO and Israel have all issued postage stamps in his honor. I wish for Nabila Espanioly a long, long life — and I look forward to the day when Israel is at sufficient peace not only with its neighbors but also with itself to issue a stamp honoring her work.

There was Rula Deeb, whose organization, Kayan, has successfully lobbied for bus service in 11 Palestinian towns and villages in Israel’s north, places with a combined population of 180,000 people. That sounds like a small thing, but it is in fact transformative, enabling the women of those places the freedom to meet, whether in workshops or for other purposes. That means they need no longer depend on their husbands to transport them. It is quite startling to realize how so mundane a service can — here’s that word again — empower people.

And there was Ali Haider, co-director (with Ron Gerlitz) of the venerable organization Sikkuy, the most authoritative source of reliable data on the condition of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Sikkuy has recently founded the Jewish-Arab Mayors’ Forum, which builds sustainable frameworks for cooperation between neighboring Arab and Jewish communities.

And Salam Hamid, who was born in Umm al-Fahm a few days after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and is now Umm al-Fahm’s deputy mayor. His parents named him “Salam” as an expression of their hope for peace; months back, he was a key organizer of an immensely important rally for tolerance and peace in Umm al-Fahm, a rebuke to Baruch Marzel, an Orthodox immigrant from America, a close associate of the late Meir Kahane and about as extreme a right-winger as this country suffers. Marzel had come to Umm al-Fahm in an effort to provoke the people there. Salam Hamid took the high road, together with his co-conspirator, Gadi Gvaryahu. Gvaryahu was the founder of Yudbet Heshvan (the Hebrew date of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination), whose devotion to making tolerance real has produced a liberal Orthodox school, a nationwide youth movement and the only synagogue in Israel named for Yitzhak Rabin.

Doctors, bookstore owners, sports announcers — a long list, a long evening of introductions and film clips of the work the honorees are engaged in. The obvious question: Does it all amount to anything? In a region as volatile as this, in a nation whose political leaders seem, almost to a person, in way over their heads, at a time when fateful choices await the people and when no choice is without considerable cost and considerable risk — can these modest efforts be truly meaningful? Or are they just little white truths we tell ourselves to make the punishing realities more palatable? Great tides of history are at play here, may before dawn become convulsions. Can a bunch of niche redeemers and redemptions make a difference, a genuine contribution to how the larger tomorrow unfolds?

The answer: Who knows? All that we can know for sure is that the kind of efforts invested in empowering people, in extending the boundaries of tolerance and of civil society, in something as modest as ensuring that in a nation where most Jews have never engaged in a real conversation with a Palestinian, where casual, thoughtless racism is a staple in Knesset debate — that such efforts may at the very least preserve the morale of those whose passion for democratic and pluralistic values and behaviors may one day infect an entire system. In the meanwhile, they offer much-needed respite for both visitors in search of sunlight and citizens in search of hope.

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