When I was eight years old growing up in Long Island, New York, I told my parents that I wanted our family to go to Israel for my bar mitzva instead of having a big party. We did. I don’t know where the urge came from. We were not a religious family, although we belonged to a synagogue.
Growing up in a very Jewish neighborhood, belonging to a synagogue was just something you did. On Jewish holidays our public school closed because there weren’t enough non-Jewish students or teachers to warrant keeping the school open. My Jewish identity was naturally part of who I was and being Jewish was a source of pride. I had almost no non-Jewish friends and we naturally thought that we were special – the smartest and most talented kids were Jews – that’s just the way it was.
A few months before the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 my family visited Williamsburg, Virginia. This legislation was a landmark and outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and women. It ended, by law, unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and in facilities that served the general public.
In Williamsburg I encountered for the first time in my life a restaurant with a sign in the window that said “Whites Only.” I was shocked and confused. I was all of eight years old. My mother was a teacher and had the habit of transforming every emotional encounter into an educational experience. My parents explained to me the history of slavery and discrimination in the United States. When I got back to New York I was inspired to read the book Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, a white man. The book was first published in 1961 and became a best seller. Griffin took some chemicals to darken his skin and then traveled across America as a black man documenting his experiences. The book had a huge impact on me in the development of my social and political conscience and consciousness. That event launched my political interests and I soon became very engaged in the Civil Rights movement and the campaign against the war in Vietnam.
I was 13 in 1969 when we first visited Israel, for my bar mitzva. I was quite politically aware regarding the world and as an American Jew felt great pride in Israel’s miraculous victory in the June 1967 war. My most vivid memory from that trip in the summer of 1969 was standing on the balcony of our cousin’s home. (Avrum was my mother’s first cousin, a Holocaust survivor who, after losing his parents and two sisters managed to get to Israel after the war). Looking out at Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb, I remember this overwhelming feeling of being home. Even now, more than 45 years later, when I think about Israel, my first association is being home. When I travel abroad, which I do quite often, seeing the coastline of Israel from the plane on my way back, I feel that I am arriving home. It is a very comforting and warm feeling, filled with emotion.
I moved to Israel at the age of 22 as a young single man beginning a new life. I had visited Israel several times after my bar mitzva, including the one-year program of Young Judaea, the Zionist movement which became my home and my point of reference. I was president of the Long Island region of Young Judaea in my last year in high school. The movement provided an extraordinary opportunity for young people to demonstrate commitment to an idea, take on an enormous amount of responsibility, develop intellectually, and to translate principles into life decisions.
We were a lot more mature than our age in those days.
The three most important lessons I learned (and subsequently taught to many others in my own age group and younger than me) were: leadership by example, living by what you believe in (your values) and taking initiative. These lessons have been with me my entire life. There is a common conventional wisdom among Young Judaea graduates of my generation: everything important in life I learned in Young Judaea! I learned my love for Israel in Young Judaea. As I grew and experienced life in Israel I learned my love for the multi-faceted nature of Israeli society.
Between 1979-1981 I spent two years living in working in the Palestinian-Israeli village of Kufr Kari – there I learned my love of the Arabic language and my deep appreciation for Arab culture. When I was living in the Arab village the most common question I would be asked by Israeli Jews was: aren’t you afraid? I wasn’t – in fact I lived in a house in the village that had no lock on the door. I visited more than 500 homes in the two years I lived there. That experience paved the way for me to become the first civil servant in the Israeli government whose responsibility was developing educational programs between Jewish and Arab schools. It was prime minister Menahem Begin and education minister Zevulun Hammer who hired me. I have spent the past 37 years building bridges between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, including 24 years as the co-director of the joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank I founded in 1988 dedicated to the two states for two peoples solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When I look around Israel today I am deeply saddened by the reality that we are living. It does not have to be like this. I continue to travel across borders into the Palestinian areas in the West Bank and to Palestinian-Israeli communities inside of Israel. I do so without fear and I always feel welcome. My Israel doesn’t have fences and walls that separate me from others. Sometimes we need fences and walls to protect us, like during this period. But the development of the vision of “peace” in Israel which is based on total separation, walls and fences will never work, it will never lead to peace and to reconciliation. Peace has to be based on the changing of relations between Israelis and Palestinians – not locking them into separate cages that prevent contact and chances for cooperation.
It is very difficult for most Israelis and Palestinians to even imagine peace today. It seems beyond the realm of reality. It saddens me that so few Israelis and Palestinians have any positive contact between them today. The young generation of Israelis and Palestinians don’t meet and don’t have the opportunity to meet as equal human beings. It deeply saddens me that so few politicians on both sides speak to each other. I have tried with several leading members of the current Knesset to offer them opportunities to meet with counterparts in Palestine. It is not politically expedient today for them to do that – especially if they come from the Right side of them political map.
There will be no end to the violence without talking. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere. Both peoples will continue to live in the land between the River and the Sea. This can either be a curse (as most see it) or as a blessing – as I see it.
There will be no peace and no reconciliation until we can all learn to appreciate that the only way we can live in this land with security is when we cease to see the others living here as our permanent enemy.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.