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A virus cannot separate us

This has been one of the most stressful weeks our world has seen. The news seems to change multiple times a day, and it’s hard to follow what the best recommendations are, as they also seem to change. Today saw California, New York State and Illinois effectively locked down. We can only assume that Florida will soon follow. Our regular gathering places are no longer options as we practice “social distancing.”

Judaism actually frowns on the concept of “social distancing,” as we are a people of togetherness. So as we physically distance, we must work to ensure that we are still socially connected.

The Orlando Weekday Community Minyan is occurring virtually. Many local Shabbat services are also available online so we can gather via technology. Our community leaders are creating more content available for online streaming, from the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning to classes taught by Rabbis to exercise classes through Les Mills.

If you have been following the special COVID-19 Federation page launched a week ago, you know that we have been collating activities available by our local organizations, and today we have added links to others around the country.

During this global pandemic and national emergency, I have been touched by the many people who have reached out to see how I am doing. People asking if I’m OK; saying thank you for the work of Federation to keep our community strong and thriving. I’ve been inspired by the local Jewish leaders who are stepping up to address this unprecedented public health emergency and finding ways to make sure everyone can stay connected. I’ve been inspired by our volunteer leadership across the country who are stepping up in a situation they never imagined to lead and steward the many organizations, synagogues, and agencies into an uncertain future.

Even in these challenging days, our community profoundly impresses me. I have seen incredible generosity, incredible leadership, incredible cooperation, and true passion. As we prepare for Shabbat, I hope that you will take a moment as you light candles to truly see the light: The light of hope. The light of commitment. The light that the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando brings to our rich, vibrant and amazing community.

I’m coming home …

One last post before I return to America. After an exhausting experience like this, there is nothing better than getting to unwind with friends. I took a taxi to my friends Margot and Tamar’s house for dinner, conversation, friendship, to play with their kids and meet their new baby. We talked about it being 13 years since Margot made Aliyah (I took her on her first trip to Israel!) and how my oldest turns 20 in less than 3 months. It was an incredibly refreshing way to walk away from the challenges of the conflict and the deep thought of the past 4 days and talk about kids, food, family, and the wonders of daily life. Of course, they are Israeli and asked questions about the trip and we discussed things but the intensity was different. It was back on my home ground. I wasn’t challenged by what they said, in fact it was mostly what I believed before the trip and/or what I still believe today.

And the beauty of the Jewish community showed through as I got a text from a friend whose son is in our JCC preschool telling me that after such a tough week, I deserved to see this picture (it’s of her son and 3 of his friends in their classroom). All the pictures are below. It was amazing feeding the new baby – it made me understand what being a grandfather will be like sometime WAY in the future

Despite the sadness and anger and hope and joy that this week has brought me, I am feeling grateful and relaxed. I will miss Israel and all her beauty but I know I will be back in the near future to experience all her wonders again.

Part 15: Trip summary

We gathered together for the final time as a group to begin the processing of the entire experience. I learned so much from the others on the trip as well as those we heard from and what I saw throughout the West Bank. One of the things I said in that final gathering was how I knew I needed more time to process and unpack the entire experience. There is much that I have been thinking about that I haven’t written. As I figure stuff out, I’ll write about it.

Four days ago, I met these 35 or so people for the first time (well I did know two of them before and had met one a few years ago). We were strangers in a strange land. After 4 days I feel like I have new friends. We joked how the trip started weeks ago.

Intensive immersive experience is a commonly used term. I’ve used it many times. This was by far the most intensive immersive experience I have ever had. My head is still spinning with all I have seen and experienced. The beliefs I held at the start of the trip, the beliefs that were challenged, the contradictions not only from speaker to speaker but also within the session of a speaker.

As I sit at Ben Gurion airport waiting for my 5:20 am flight (it sounded bad when I booked it and it’s even worse now in actuality), the only thing I am certain of is that this is a very complicated situation and there are no easy answers. Israel has an existential security threat they must address. The Palestinians are suffering and struggling. I’m not into blame and don’t want to go there. I do believe the current situation is untenable and something must change but what, how, who starts, how long it takes, I have no idea.

In the end, just as the Encounter staff told us at the beginning, it’s not my job to solve the conflict. That’s for the Israelis and the Palestinians. I’m not even a citizen so I don’t vote there and have no say in the government. I do believe it’s my job to facilitate conversations. To help people in both my local community as well as in my sphere of influence gain a better understanding of the complexities and challenges that exist. So, as we discussed what our ‘intentionality’ was after the trip, I said mine was to bring this to my community and sphere of influence to do just that.

Now I’m really looking forward to plane taking off so I can go to sleep. The flight home will give me time to rest and maybe begin the processing. Or I may just watch a movie to numb my mind.

Part 14: One who dared

Our final speaker of the day and of the trip came with some pre-advertising. One of our facilitators had met him before and heard him before and raved about him. They had become friends.

Osama began his talk by asking for a moment of silence for all the souls lost as a result of the violence.
After our moment of silence, he began by stating that there are two different narratives and both are true. In addition, neither side wants to accept the other’s. It was an interesting beginning as he was the first speaker we had who began by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and historic ties to the land. He didn’t criticize Israel.

He told some of his family history. They left in 1967 for Jordan and couldn’t get back. His grandfather was passionate about Jerusalem and found a way to Jericho and then Jerusalem. The rest of the family stayed in Jordan.

His earliest memories were being taught ‘fear the black hat Jews’. In 1989 at age 12 he was harassed by soldiers for the first time and when he asked his mom she told him “We don’t call them solders. We call them “Yehud”. Yehud was meant as a racial slur. His hatred was stoked by his family and in 1990 when Saddam Hussain was bombing Tel Aviv, he and his friends would go to the roof of their building to celebrate. He thought that Tel Aviv was an army base, filled with soldiers, not where families lived. As he grew up, everything bad that happened was blamed on the “Yehud”.

His fear of the “Yehud” turned to hate when he was arrested for hanging a Palestinian Flag on a post and he was given a 6-month jail sentence. He ended up serving 9 months. HIs time in jail was where he learned all bad things about the Jews. He said jail is where they “learn the lies to breed hate of Jews.” At one point he was put in solitary confinement. Sitting in the dark, he had reached his lowest point of despair when he began hearing somebody singing a song. He couldn’t make out the words and didn’t know the tune but hearing that singing pulled him out of his darkest place.

Soon after he was released from jail, his best friend was killed by the army. Osama decided to join the Palestinian Police to fight and hurt the ‘Yehud’. He was given orders to protect the Alysha settlement where another of his friends was killed in the skirmish and he left. He left the Palestinian Police because he wanted to ‘do something big to get revenge.’

Doing something big meant he got very involved with the 2nd intifada. In his own words, during those 6 years he lost everything. He lost his “heart and soul and was filled with hate.” One day he needed a ride back to Jericho and asked a friend if he would take him. His friend said yes but he had to stop in Beit Jolla to talk to friends about peace and eat and then he could go home. When he walked into the room with his friend, he saw people with Yarmulkes on. He was confused and said to his friend, “they look like Jews.” His friend told him they are all Jews and they want to talk about peace. Osama couldn’t believe his friend and walked out of the room. While outside the room he began talking to one of the Jews who explained that they wanted peace and weren’t ok with Jews or Palestinians being killed. It was the first time that Osama thought there could be a good Jewish person. He thought perhaps there could be more than just the one. He gave her a hug and walked back into the meeting of Combatants for Peace with his friend, Ahmed, who we had met the day before!

Osama continued going to Combatants for Peace meetings and began to make some Jewish friends. In his own words, he ‘got to see the beauty of Judaism and that the army isn’t Judaism.’

He doesn’t reject his Palestinian narrative but understands there are other narratives and that all can be true. His work with Combatants for Peace, where former fighters from Palestine and Israel, has taught him that both people have a right to the land. He chooses not to look at States but at people. He does believe that the occupation needs to end.

He was asked the same question as his friend Ahmed about naming streets for terrorists. He was passionate that there should not be any streets, plazas or building named for terrorists. He pointed out that Israel has a few of these which I didn’t know. I’ll have to do further research on this to verify what he said and learn more, however there were others in the room who knew exactly what he was talking about.

When asked if there were Israeli citizens, he said yes. He went a step further and said that even soldiers shouldn’t be a target and that nobody deserves to die. He said he understands the soldier’s fear of Palestinians and that “I don’t think blood is justified. Killing people is not the answer.’

When asked about BDS, he said that BDS is done by the elite and wealthy who can have what they want. It’s not for him on the ground dealing with his life challenges. It doesn’t help him in what he wants to achieve. He said that boycotting products is an acceptable form of nonviolence but boycotting people is not ok. When I asked him about boycotting academics, artists and musicians, his reply was that ‘they are people’.

Osama finished his talk by telling us about the first Shabbat dinner he attended with his Jewish friends. They poured the Kiddush wine and gathered around the table where they sang Shalom Aleichem. He began to cry openly. This was the song that he heard in jail that touched him at his darkest time. He was proud to tell us that he now knows it by heart.

As we wrapped up with announcements, one of the staff told him he could go while they prayed Mincha (the afternoon service). He laughed and asked, “What? I can’t stay for Mincha?” He took a yarmulke out of his pocket, put it on and stayed for the service.

I was profoundly moved by Osama. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he was raised with hate and that he acted on that hate. He also wasn’t afraid to admit he was vulnerable and found a way to let go of that hate and find love. He joked with us that if he took a DNA test, he’d probably find out he was part Jewish. He keeps a yarmulke in his pocket in case he is asked to a Shabbat dinner or to join his Jewish friends for a meal.

Osama left me with hope. If somebody raised in uneducated hatred and had that validated around him for 2 decades can learn he was wrong and find a way beyond hate and into respect and dare I say love, then perhaps anybody can. Here is a picture of me with Osama – we exchanged contact information and I look forward to building a friendship with him.

Part 13: “The new Apartheid road’

Our second speaker was an advisor to the Negotiation Affairs Department. I was immediately concerned when in her opening remarks she dropped the following line, “We will be driving on the new apartheid road”. No explanation. Just dropping a word bomb on us and moving on.

So as she talked, I began to research the ‘Apartheid Road’. Route 4370 was built to connect Geva Binyamin to Route 1 (the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway). It was designed to serve Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill and will also serve Arabs and those in the Shoafat Refugee camp.

So, what makes it ‘the apartheid road?’ It is because there are two roads, separated by a wall. One road is for Israeli cars and takes you into Jerusalem. The road for Palestinian cars takes you around Jerusalem since they can’t enter without a permit and can only use certain checkpoints. While visually it is terrible, there is a logic behind it. This is another one of those things that doesn’t feel quite right but I need more time to process it.

She talked about how the settlements are being built and creating transportation problems for Palestinians. The settlers are getting new roads and easier access while the Palestinian villages and towns are not. She also made the claim that the new roads, checkpoints and tunnels are being built with a strategic intention to hide Palestinian cities. There was a documentary made about this that highlights how Israelis know how where and how to get to the settlements in the area but no the Palestinian towns that are right next to the settlements. I didn’t agree with her on this point as it felt too much like a conspiracy theory.

Citing a very common theme throughout the trip, she talked about building permits in Area C. She said that since 1993, only 1% of home building permits by Palestinians have been approved. As a result, they build without permits and then face demolition when found out.

She also told us that her status is Jordanian Resident of East Jerusalem. She is not a citizen, which again is a common theme. As such, if she works/lives abroad for 5-7 years, she loses her status.

One of the more powerful things she said was that she believes settlers are complicit in a war crime. As a result, she refuses to talk to any settler. Other Jews/Israelis she holds accountable but will talk to them. That’s why she would address us as a group.

One of the participants asked her if the new Palestinian state she imagines would be ‘Jew free’. She looked like a deer in headlights at this question, understanding the power of saying it would be Jew free (Juden Frei as the Germans called it). She danced around the question without giving an answer before moving on. She wouldn’t say that Jews would be welcome to live in the new state of Palestine.

Listening to her had me struggling to see a future where Palestinian leadership and intellectually elite would respect Israel’s existence. While she wants to be a citizen of Palestine and live in East Jerusalem in the State of Palestine, she also wants to retire in Jaffa. This didn’t wash with me.

She was the scariest of all the speakers so far for me. She is smart, well spoken, and media savvy. Words have power and she uses hers very carefully with targeted effect. It was the ‘Annexation Wall’ and the “Apartheid Road’. It was also scary to listen to those in our group who appeared to buy into her propaganda.
The pictures below are of ‘The Apartheid Road’ (2 lanes each way, not a 4-lane divided highway) and a sign on one road we passed that takes you into a Palestinian area that has been determined to not be safe for Israelis/Jews.

Part 12: ‘End of the occupation’

It’s hard to believe that this is the last day of this experience. It’s been a very challenging and rewarding one that will take much unpacking and processing.
Today’s first presenter was Sam Bahour. Born in Youngstown, Ohio to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, Sam grew up with a close connection to his father’s Palestinian neighborhood and felt a stronger connection there than in Youngstown. In 1995 we emigrated to the Palestinian Territories and received a tourist visa, meaning every 3 months he had to leave and return. This continued for 15 years until he was given residency.

The Oslo agreement as a keynote moment for him. After reading it multiple times, he thought it was a disaster. The agreement had two parts. The first was about values and was pretty standard. The second was 4 dozen or so annexes. The reason the annexes were needed was that in the agreement, it addressed many sectors but not one of them was fully transferred to the Palestinian Authority. All were partial transfers. Since his wife wanted to move to Palestine, she urged him to re-read the agreement to make sure. He did and found a line in Annex 36 that resonated. It stated that there would be “separate and independent telecommunication networks.” This gave Sam what he needed to feel comfortable moving to Palestine. He got involved with the creation of the largest telecom company in the region which currently is worth over 1 billion dollars. In his word, they are still not separate and independent however.

Sam got an MBA at Tel Aviv University which meant that he got to meet Israeli’s who were not active soldiers and in uniform. He told us this gave him a unique Palestinian view of Israelis as to most of them, Israeli means Soldier.

Sam has found and still believes that business transcends the conflict. During the first intifada he was working on a big mall project. They needed to get a Point of Sale (POS) system so he did his research. The best system was made by a company in Herzaliya. He had to go to his Arab partners and tell them they could send him to America where he would spend more money for a lesser system or they could send him 45 minutes away to Herzaliya to get the best system at a lower price. After much discussion, the board decided to get the Israeli system.

Sam talked about his concerns. First, he sees a loss of hope. Now a consultant, he sees companies he works with looking to move outside of the West Bank because of what’s going on. He said business moved out of Gaza years ago because there is no hope and he sees that process starting in the West Bank.
He also said that he believes the current Israeli plan is the push the educated out. He used his own daughters as examples. One is an MIT graduate who got some experience and is heading back for her MBA. The other is currently enrolled at Harvard and looking to follow her sister’s plan. With this type of education, there will be no jobs for them in the West Bank, which will only leave the uneducated with no hope there. This wasn’t the first time I heard about this conspiracy theory and while it makes sense for their narrative, I question it. Something doesn’t sound right and it sounds like with economic progress, this is a new phenomenon for a larger number of families.

Based on what he said so far, Sam highlighted three trends he saw.
1. They turn violent. He believes that this is what the Netanyahu government wants because it’s what they mastered.
2. Leave. He expects that somebody in Tel Aviv is looking at his file and asking “Why is he still here? What do we have to do to get him to leave?” He said that the strangulation of the economy accomplishes this.
3. Take your ID and get a permit to go through the checkpoint. Leave your hope at 3:30 am to get to work at 8 am. Work 10 hours and head home. Kiss your sleeping children and repeat the next day. Work as a day laborer.

He wants to create a 4th option by building a vibrant economy in Palestine. It is his believe that this is essential for the Palestinian people and the future in the region and Israel is not allowing it.

He was asked what the ‘end of the occupation’ means to him. He said the following:
1. Israel needs to acknowledge there is an occupation. it’s not ‘occupied territory’ or ‘disputed territory’. According to Sam, occupation is defined as temporary and 52 years later it’s not temporary.
2. Palestine should be established with 3 borders set and 1 to be negotiated. This is what Israel currently is and he wants them treated the same way.

According to Sam there is a call for new elections happening. Due to the ‘occupation’, Israel will have to approve the elections and the concern is that the Israeli government will not allow them. This will change the narrative and make their lack of elections due to Israel.

The most concerning thing that Sam said was what he closed with. He said that it won’t remain nonviolent forever. In addition, he said that either Israel is occupying them or there is one state with 2 different rules for its citizens. So, if Israel isn’t an occupier then Israel is an Apartheid state. He said there is already a call to drop Statehood and declare Israel Apartheid. There are those who think this is the best way to force a 1 state solution which will end up not being a Jewish state.
Sam was fascinating to listen to and raised great caution for me. He is an extremely successful businessman and has traveled the world. He has a worldwide audience already and will be a power to be reckoned with. He already speaks on college campuses and should they choose to renounce statehood and attempt to get Israel classified as an Apartheid state to force a 1 state solution, the Jewish state is at risk.

The time with Sam and what he said is something I need to reflect much more on. Unlike many of the other speakers during the first three days, his was filled with nuance and key use of language. There are a lot of things that are rubbing me wrong but I can’t put my fingers on them just yet.
You can find him online – he has a blog and has written some powerful pieces including a sarcastic open letter to Jared Kushner and a serious letter to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) with 8 points in it. It’s important to read what he says to understand his brilliance and the potential risk.