Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Visit to The Knesset

          Throughout the program our group embarked on site visits, had lectures, and enjoyed informational tours on a variety of topics.  However, in order to truly grasp the current state of Israeli politics it was necessary to meet with those who actually represent the government as policy-makers and experts.  Two specific days in the jam-packed 2 ½ week schedule fulfilled this job of hearing directly from those who play a role in Israel’s current political and governmental scene.  The first of these days included a trip to the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset, with the next being a visit to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
         In our trip to the Knesset the class met with two current Members of Knesset (MKs), MK Boaz Toporovsky of Yesh Atid and MK Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour of Ra’am Ta’al.  In preparation for these meetings the class listened to a lecture from Professor Ziv on the state of domestic Israeli politics, including the background of Israeli political parties and make-up of the political left and right in Israel.  In meeting with MK Toporovsky the class got the valuable chance to hear from an MK in the rising Yesh Atid party, known for its success in the latest election cycle and for party head Yair Lapid (Minister of Finance).  The young MK, with a background in student activism, discussed his personal and party’s interest in tackling the pressing social issues in Israel today.  Toporovsky fielded questions from the class on the issues of importance to the MK, as well as challenging inquires to his party’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  Following the meeting with a young Yesh Atid MK, the class switched gears to meet with MK Sheikh Sarsour.  In contrast to the social agenda of Toporovsky, MK Sarsour passionately lectured on the status of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in today’s Israeli society.  The Ra’am Ta’al representative called for significant improvement in the treatment of Israeli Arabs, and discussed an array of topics in relation to equality in education, employment, and political rights.  By meeting with a pair of contrasting MKs from parties that differ significantly, the class benefited from seeing the diversity which makes up the Knesset.  While, even for the casual observer, it is relatively easy to grasp the party system in American politics, I think the class came away from our Knesset visits with an appreciation for the more in-depth party structure of Israeli politics.

(Us with MK Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour of Ra'am Ta'al)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why you should go (back) to Israel

Full disclosure: I have been to Israel before. Four years ago I went on a Birthright trip, lucky to get in right before the evil misdoings of Bernie Madoff drastically reduced funding, although you would not be able to tell that from the swarms of “Birthrighters” (not to be confused with “Birthers”) everywhere in Israel.  It was an experience that made me want to go back to Israel, which in hindsight is good, because I needed to see more. 
Last time I went to the Western Wall, as we did this trip.  Not being a particularly religious person, it is still a pretty awe-inspiring feeling to place your hand on a stone that just maybe one of your ancestors touched thousands of years ago.  To see the Western Wall; however, but not go up to the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, it is hard to truly appreciate why the old City is such a source of conflict.  And last time I missed the Muslim quarter, a vibrant section the city where my poor travel companions were forced by me to attempt to improve upon their fledgling haggling skills.   Even staying at the Hebrew University, an “enclave” in East Jerusalem, among Arab and Orthodox communities, with a view of the separation barrier, is an experience in itself.
I needed to return to see a complimentary part of the puzzle. Having gone to places like Jaffa already, I still learned new facts from our excellent guides.  These are places with so much history, there are a thousand and one ways to explain the story of the cities here.  Birthright was a part of the picture; an opportunity that I am grateful for.  There was; however, an agenda (as rightfully they should have for a trip they are paying for).  That is why I am just as grateful to be able to have returned to Israel through the SIS program.    

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Toward the end of the trip... what I have felt so far

Toward the end of the trip, what I have felt so far is…

1. Israel is the real melting pot.
I was surprised by how diverse Israel is compared to its relatively small size of territory. I could meet diverse people, languages, cultures, religions, races, foods, etc. depending on the regions or areas. Here in Israel, Hebrew, Arabic and English are equally common so that you can see almost all sign is written in three languages. The Druze lives in their own community, the Druze village, keeping its traditional religion and culture. Bedouin is as well. Regarding to religion, Christian, Jewish and Islam coexist not only in Jerusalem but also in other cities in Israel. Israel also has various climate, nature and environment so you can feel different atmosphere once you move from here to there. For example, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem look like totally different countries rather than being in the same country: simply saying, religious and secular, and many different elements in detail. If you want to experience a real diversity, come to Israel!

2. My prejudice/perception of Israeli has gone.
I had a misperception of Israelis. I thought that the Israeli government and Israelis are in the same position (or have the same perspective). I was and still am against the hawkish attitude of Israeli government toward the Palestinian or Arab issues, which seem to make it worse to solve. To be more honest, I once thought that the current Israeli policy toward Palestinian is another type of Holocaust in view of Palestinians, and have some issues that I couldn’t understand/agree on: How could the religious belief be met by territorial sovereignty? International society sees Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory as an illegal act; however, even the UN peacekeepers’ operation has not intervened in such illegitimacy. My belief was that Israeli people has the same view with the Israeli government regarding those issues since the government represents its people. However, my prejudice toward Israeli people has been broken down when I met several Israelis and heard from them their perspectives. There are many people against the government’s policy and lots of people are working on social justice, especially for equal rights between Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli and for social welfare of minority people. I have also heard of some people’s thought about the separation wall: although it is true that the suicidal bombing terror has been decreased since the construction of the separation wall, not many people see it as a direct result of separation wall. Rather, they believe that there are also other variables such as Palestinian Authority’s efforts to deter terrorism, policy change in both sides, etc. that have contributed to reduce the terror. In other words, most people see it as a correlation not a causal relation. Through this experience, I learned again ‘do not make a mistake of overgeneralization’. There are diverse spectrum of perspectives in Israel like as Dr. Ziv’s saying.

3. Common thing between Tel Aviv and Seoul.
Tel Aviv is no different from other big cities such as New York, Paris: Young people enjoy their lives, spend their time at the beach, hang out with friends, and the city is still vigorous and cheerful at night. We hardly tell the tension unlike in Jerusalem. They seem not to care about (or even recognize of) conflict with Palestine. In our meeting with an alumna of SIS, Anat Ben-Nun, working at the Israel NGO forum, mentioned this point as one of the obstacles that current peace programs face. Since young people think that they do not have any problem and they live normal lives, they do not care about peace issue. When I heard of this, I could easily compare this phenomenon with that of South Korea. Conflicts between South and North Korea are, of course, fundamentally different from those between Israel and Palestine, but the current situation that young people (Tel Aviv and Seoul) do not recognize of conflict is seemingly the same. This point was personally interesting to me. Peace does not emerge by itself. Peace is made by human efforts.

Photos I took during the field trip:

Mt. Arbel hiking
Mt. Arbel hiking
Mt. Arbel hiking
On the top, we can see the Sea of Galilee
Golan Heights
Golan Heights
Which city is most far away from Jerusalem? It depends on how you define the distance!
Golan Heights
Golan Heights
You can see the Israeli border with Syria
Separation wall
Separation wall
Separation wall

Sea of Galilee
Over there, we can see dimly the Golan Heights (maybe)
Sea of Galilee
Walk on the water!

A Multi-Faith Display

      As discussed in prior blog posts, one of the recurring themes throughout our time in Israel is the existence of a profound religious presence.  “The Holy Land”has truly earned its name.  While experiencing the modern Jewish state that Israel represents, we have continually witnessed the multi-faith reality of this nation.  From studying the Biblical value of Jerusalem, to discussing the experience of religious minorities in Israel, to learning the historic path of religion among the Bedouin, our group has understood the diverse yet ever-present value of religion in Israeli society.  There have been, and continue to be, issues and challenges due to this distinct multi-faith presence in Israel. However, one thing people can agree upon is the great aesthetic contributions of religion on display throughout Israel.  I’ve captured just a few examples of this in the photographs below.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Visit to the Holy Land

On Tuesday May 28th we had a phenomenal presentation by Daniel Sneidman of Terrestrial Jerusalem (an organization devoted to delivering pertinent information, maps, and analyses to stakeholders in Israel regarding current and future Israeli-Palestinian relations), regarding the historical, social, and political context of Jerusalem in relation to the country and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His key point was that "Jerusalem is a radioactive issue," and its complexity is one of the primary complications to settling an agreeable two state solution amongst both Israeli and Palestinian groups. The division of the "Old City" in Jerusalem is almost non-negotiable between both sides, but in order for a sustainable peace process to be underway, the issue of Jerusalem must be properly addressed and decided. I encourage everyone to visit the TJ website to get a better understanding of the demographics and geography of the city. It will also illustrate the current Israeli-Palestinian inhabitants key border locations.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the Old City and visited the Western Wall, as well as the Muslim and Christian quarters. This was a very powerful moment for me personally because it exemplified the spiritual and religious component of this country and reflected its identity as the true Holy Land. While at the Western Wall, I stood beside various Jews, both young and old, from all over the world. I pressed my right and left hand upon the stone with my head bowed in the center (imitating everyone else around me), I closed my eyes, opened my heart, and I prayed. It was a very moving moment for me to be present at the most religious and sacred place a Jewish person could pray, and also, as a Christian, to be able to pray amongst another religion, sharing different values, beliefs, and ideologies, but all praying and believing in the same God. So, I prayed with them. I prayed for them. And I prayed for the continued purity of the Holy Land.

Shortly after my brief moment of spiritual enlightenment at the Western Wall, we walked over the bridge which led us into the Muslim quarters. From there, we visited various Islamic landmarks, but particularly the Omar Mosque, the second most sacred place of worship for the Muslim community. Coming from a multi-faith household, with a Christian mother and Muslim father, I appreciated the sight of the Mosque and the importance it held in the Islamic faith. Needless to say, my father was ecstatic to see the photos of me standing on the steps of the Mosque of Omar.

We ended our multi-faith visit in the Christian quarter, where we witnessed the most beautifully constructed churches. The Christian quarter was split into several sectors, the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans, the Coptics, the Ethiopians, and the Armenians. We also trailed the very same road that Jesus walked on his journey towards his place of crucifixion. We saw the stones and walls upon which he touched as he struggled to carry the cross on his back to his destination of sacrifice. It was all very powerful and emotional and it really allowed me to embrace my spirituality. My experience to the Old City was very personal because I was moved by every prayer I heard without the barriers of religion, race, or cultural identity. I was able to integrate myself into each spiritual belief and it was a personal triumph for myself in which the lines of Us vs them and the barriers of I vs Other became ambivalent and relatively non-existent. Despite the way we look, the way we talk, where we come from, we are all united. And despite what we may call our higher power, we are all praying to the same God.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Exploring the northern Israel.

May 30th Weekend trip to the North

On May 30th, Thursday, we moved to Haifa and Tiberius as our first weekend trip to the North. 

Firstly, we went to the Stella Maris in Haifa to meet the Father Arnold and talk with him about the story of Stella Maris. We took a tour inside of church, and I found one interesting thing that the announcement in the church was written in Arabic, not in Hebrew. Later, I heard of the reason: about 2 percent of Israeli population is Christian, and most of them are Arab people, who is the minority inside the minority (according to our guide's saying). Today, the Stella Maris church serves the Holy Mass in Arabic on Sunday.

Doa explained us about herself and the Druze
In the afternoon, we visited the Druze village and talked with Doa whose background is from the Druze. The Druze is a secret and closed religion which beliefs amalgamated several factors of other religions. They have their own symbol with five colors (blue, green, red, white, and yellow) that each one represents a different factor. When turning to a certain age, a Druze can decide whether she/he wants to keep the traditional life style of the Druze or becomes secular to live a normal life as like other people.  The traditional/religious Druze is not obliged to do a military service and they have special permit to come and go to neighboring countries even to Syria since most Druze reside in Syria, Israel and Lebanon. It is because they are not a political entity but a religious community that does not demand its independence but lives peacefully together inside Israel.

After done with our schedule, we arrived at the hotel in Tiberius, where we could see the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). The Sea of Galilee, known as the place where Jesus walked on the water in the Bible, is now one of the major water resources of Israel. Before having dinner, we went out to explore the Sea of Galilee. There were many visitors and local people enjoying their weekend. Although it was a bit foggy to see clearly, I was so impressed by the picturesque beauty of the Kinneret and the fact that 'I am now here' where I have wanted to visit. Over the sea of Galilee, I could see dimly the Golan heights where we were supposed to go the next day.

The first day of the weekend trip in Haifa and Tiberius was awesome! The next day of the Golan heights and hiking on Arbel mountain was also great (the story for this will be continued soon).

Jerusalem: Getting our feet wet.

(This post was written  on May 29. It just took a while to post it.)
Walking in knee-deep water through a damp, darkened tunnel was the high point of today.
Perhaps I should explain.
Our focus today was on a few important aspects of the City of Jerusalem, in both its modern incarnation and its historical development.
To start the day, we took a tour of East Jerusalem and its various Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods with a group called Ir Amim. Our guide, Yaniv, was fantastic, but even he was not able to make the tour anything less than sobering.  Though come to think of it, sobering is probably exactly what it should have been.
Yaniv, tellin' it like it is.
The issue, according to Ir Amim, is this: broadly speaking, the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (“Settlements”) has the potential to block any and all progress toward a two-state solution. As Danny Seidemann said in our discussion with him yesterday, it is probably necessary, if one is interested in a two-state solution, to be able to draw a single-line border between the Jewish and Palestinian areas of Jerusalem. The tour today showed that the continued growth and expansion of East Jerusalem settlements is likely to make drawing that border impossible. Indeed, the consensus within (the admittedly left-leaning) Ir Amim is that this undermining of the two-state solution is and has been deliberately planned  by various Israeli governments to do just that. That is, by changing the “facts on the ground” and making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible in East Jerusalem, some leaders in Israeli politics hope to forestall giving any concessions to Palestinians, and maintaining Jerusalem as a unified city under Israeli control.
In the foreground, all of us. In the background, existential despair.
This strategy strikes me as short-sighted. It seems to me that making Jerusalem indivisible has the potential to backfire. Given Israel’s geographic position, being surrounded by Arab states, it seems unwise to value territorial unity over peace. While Israel is certainly in a dominant regional position militarily, this may not always be the case. And, if Israel were ever to fall behind, making Jerusalem indivisible could result in stranding Jewish neighborhoods under Palestinian rule, rather than vice-versa, as seems to be the plan at the moment. Of course, many would describe any willingness to compromise the territorial integrity of Israel as short-sighted as well. They would probably argue that, since conflict is, as they see it, inevitable, giving any concessions only weakens the nation in the long run.
Huh. It's almost like this problem isn't easy to solve.

On a lighter note, the second half of our day was spent at the City of David. The City of David is the name given to the archaeological site of the ancient City of Jerusalem, as it existed under the biblical Kings of Israel. Interestingly, the modern site of the City of David is in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. We began with a video explaining the history of the city through various periods. Much of this was informative, but it was rather undercut by persistent, if low-key, promotion of the idea that modern Israel is a direct continuation of that biblical kingdom. After the video, we went on a brief tour of the site, including a few interesting facts about how the ancient Israelites lived. It’s amazing how much you can find out by examining the archaeological remains of a toilet, apparently.
But the high point of the visit to the City of David was traveling through King Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This tunnel, designed to provide a larger water supply to Jerusalem in the case of siege or invasion, was a lot of fun. It still functions today, and we walked through the entirety of it in about half an hour. It's about half a mile long, and the water still runs through it. While the water stayed mostly around mid-shin height, there were a couple moments where it reached a bit higher. At its highest point, it came up to about the middle of my thigh. I’m fairly tall, though, so others were rather more inconvenienced. Knowing the water might be a problem, we didn't bring our cameras, so unfortunately there's no pictures.
It was a lot like this, only damp.
If you want to know what it's like going through the tunnel, there are two ways you can have a similar experience right in your very own home. If you're short, just close your eyes and sit fully clothed in a half-full bathtub. If you're tall, you can do the same thing, except you kneel in the tub and smash your head against the wall. (The ceiling was a bit low at points). In all seriousness, however, it has to be said that the experience was well worth a couple of light bruises or a damp pair of shorts.
The journey through the tunnel was a cool and cooling break from the very interesting,but kind of depressing tour with Ir Amim, as well as the not inconsiderable heat of the day. All in all, today was a good blend of the serious and the fun, as well as the modern and the historic.