Tuesday, July 10 – Arab Israelis & American Seminaries

Today was spent very different than any other day at the Institute. In place of all of our learning, we spent the day on tiyulim (treks) throughout Israel. There were various choices and I decided to spend my day learning more about Arabs who are citizens of the State of Israel, the issues they face and the issues they pose to the majority Jewish culture.

The trip itself traveled up Wadi ‘Ara – the valley that forms a crescent shape that runs north from just east of Tel Aviv up the center of the country to Umm Al Faqm, and continues to Megiddo. This valley forms part of the travel corridor that connects Egypt, moving through Israel and the Wadi ‘Ara to Syria and to Babylon (Iraq) – at least this was the road before the invention of the airplane.

Our guide for the day was Professor Ellie Rekhes, a professor at Tel Aviv University, the director of the Adenauer Program and a warm mensch. You can learn more about the Adenauer Program on their website (though I believe that part of the website is only in Hebrew).

Professor Rekhes stressed throughout the day that he believes the challenges posed by the Arab minority in Israel is the greatest challenge to Israel survival – greater than the challenges of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and greater than the threat of Iran.

At the core of the challenge, from the Israel perspective, is the assimilation of a large minority (about 20% of the population of the state) whose culture is foreign to the majority culture in many respects, and for whom the apparatus and symbols of the state are very much not their own.

How should an Israeli Arab understand Hatikvah? The Magen David on the flag? The Jewish/Hebrew culture (art, literature . . .) of the State of Israel?

Yet on the other hand, Israeli Arabs live within a free, Western-style democracy, and this is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, they understand clearly that they have guaranteed rights and access to far greater resources and opportunities in education, employment, health care and others, than the Arab citizens of any other Middle Eastern or North African nation. And they feel both close to and separate from the Arabs in the Territories who are not part of the State.

And yet, they can’t fully participate in the “Israeli Dream and Miracle” – it is not their culture or history, they do not serve in the army, and they are a minority who face huge amounts of discrimination.

Beyond that, they are also pulled upon in different directions. To many Israelis, especially after the large violent riots of October 2000, there is an increased difference of the “other” within, and a great deal of distrust. To the Palestinians in the territories, often members of the same family, they appear to be only half-heartedly committed to Palestinian nationalism, since they are already enjoying greater freedoms and blessings.

Professor Rekhes shared in-depth demographic data about the various populations within Israel, and explained trends that he see in the future – none of them good. This data and much more is available through the website of the Israel Census Bureau.

His repeated message was that Israeli society needed to wake up to this growing problem, because it will not just disappear.

Overall the day was amazing, enlightening and at times depressing. We had lunch with the Arab Mayor of an Israeli city comprised entirely of Arabs (yes, segregation is the norm in most of Israel). He was powerful, very intelligent, though his English wasn’t very good. He made it clear that he was a citizen of the State of Israel and wanted full access to the institutions of democracy and the benefits and responsibilities that derive from it.

We saw many interesting sights. It was an dislocating experience to be in Israel, in a city where all the signs were written in either Hebrew and Arabic or just Arabic.

As good as the day was, it was still a whole lot of hours in a bus.

In the evening, as tired as we were, we were treated to a wonderful and historic program.

Arnie Eisen, the new President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and David Ellenson, the President of Hebrew Union College, spoke together as the evening program.

First, these are two exceptional human being and exceptional scholars.

David’s presentation and dissection of 19th and 20th Century poskim (Jewish legal decisors), predominantly German, struggle to analyze and understand a world in transition and formation.

Arnie’s work at Stanford in Modern Jewish Thought has been groundbreaking and defining of the field. For those who thought that Arnie’s “The Jew Within” which was one of the Readings with the Rabbi selections this past year was a bit dry, you should read one of David’s social histories of these German rabbis! (Though I have read and learned from them all.)

It is my honor and blessing that both of these great teachers have been teachers of mine and continue to be so.

The night was exceptional, because before David and Arnie ascended each to their respective presidency, the presidents of the two important institutions, JTS and HUC, had virtually nothing to do with each other.

Their mutual respect and strong friendship, will do wonderful things building bridges between the school, and in the larger Jewish world.

It was also fascinating that neither spoke much about their movements or their institutions (at least until the Q & A period at the end). Arnie presented a close read of an article by Rabbi Art Green, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and David presented responsa from 19th Century German Orthodox Rabbis. Their choices alone represent a fascinating text of the current openness of the movements!

Truly a gift to be able to sit and listen to two of the G’dolim (Great Ones) of our generation.

Just to reflect on the differences between my days and Jennifer’s days. When I finally arrived home at close to 11:00 PM, after this long, tiring, depressing and uplifting day of study, travel and struggle, I walked into the living room of our apartment and discovered Jennifer and her sister Hilary enjoying Adam Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer” on TV. I tried to watch it, but as funny as the movie is, and I do think it is funny, it was too big of a shift in gears for me at the end of a day such as this.

So I went to bed.

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