A view from J Street’s congressional and leadership mission

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater
on March 7, 2013


I am living in Jerusalem as part of my sabbatical for the next four months. As an American Jewish leader, I have a special affinity for Israel, its history, land and culture. I lived here once before, in 1995-96 for a year of rabbinical school, and I have led several synagogue trips since that tumultuous year, when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. My classmate was killed in the first wave of Hamas bus bombings and everything that we had hoped and dreamed of in terms of peace began to tragically unravel.

Today, the unraveling continues and the need for a two-state solution to be implemented is beyond urgent if there is a hope to keep the democratic and Jewish dream of Israel alive. In my first week here, I was privileged to join a J Street congressional and leadership mission for three of their six days in Israel. I want to share some of what I learned in those three full days.

Representatives Jan Schakowsky, Raul Grijalva, Barbara Lee and Hank Johnson at the Knesset

From the outset, I state the following: I consider myself a Zionist and lover of Israel; I consider Israel the spiritual home of the Jewish people with a right to exist, as any other nation; I acknowledge the massive complexities of this region in terms of relations between Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians and the greater Arab world; I know that there is no easy solution to be implemented tomorrow that will solve all of the problems immediately; I believe that American Jews, and the United States government, have a serious and active role to play in helping Israelis and Palestinians work toward a just, fair and equitable solution to the conflict. And I know that I am biased toward Jews and Israel, even as I attempt, with all my heart, to listen to, care about, understand and identify with the Palestinian leaders, activists and citizens I met. I am a human being and so I am flawed, no matter how hard I try to be balanced and unbiased.

As with any mission of this sort, the schedule went from early in the morning until late in the evening, covering great distances in both physical and emotional terrain. The mission included 20 J Street leaders and staff, along with Representatives Barbara Lee of California, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Hank Johnson of Georgia. Before I joined the group, they spent a day hearing from Israeli thinkers, journalists and activists to set the stage for the trip, and another day visiting the southern border with Gaza, seeing the Iron Dome, meeting Israelis living under constant threat of rockets and discussing the security situation with a top Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) commander.

During our visits, we were privileged to meet with top Palestinian and Israeli leaders, including members of the Knesset from different parties, and several US officials. All of these meetings were considered off the record so I can’t quote them directly, but will be sharing information they provided.

When I joined the group, we went to Hebron, seeing firsthand how the occupation plays out in some of the most challenging ways, as 650 Israeli combat soldiers protect 850 Israeli settlers in the midst of 175,000 Palestinians in the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. There are two zones in Hebron, H1 and H2, with a checkpoint in between. H2 used to be the bustling city center of Hebron, a town of Biblical proportions, as important, and for some more important, than Jerusalem in terms of Jewish continuity to this land. It is the home of The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which we visited, where Abraham, Sarah and the majority of the other matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.

Israeli soldiers in Hebron

Today, H2, where I started my journey as a peace activist 18 years ago, is a ghost town, a totally sterile military zone. It felt like walking onto a movie set that had been made to look abandoned. Soldiers patrol the streets, shops and homes are boarded up and shuttered, garbage is strewn everywhere and it is silent. The silence is the most palpable.

We met some Palestinian nonviolent activists who are trying to regain access to homes and businesses, including Shuhada St., the main shopping street of years past. They spoke of the pain they endure from constant raids into their homes in the middle of the night by IDF troops; from being told they can only walk on certain sides of the streets, while Jews can walk anywhere they want; from having their front doors welded shut so that they have to exit their homes by a ladder to the roof; from being put under curfew for days and weeks at a time; from having the checkpoint to H1, where the food, supplies and medical care lives, be closed at random times. These are stories that we have heard time and again, but seeing them firsthand brought home the face of the occupation.

What was new, at least for me, was hearing these Palestinians say that they want to live in peace with Israel, that they have Jewish friends in Hebron, that they know violence and hatred will never solve this conflict. It is these voices that the world needs to hear, rather than the militant voices of Hamas, Hezbollah and extremists that have co-opted the cause of peace in this region. One quote stuck with me: “The settlers are working hard to affect life here for the worse. We need to work even harder for peace and equality.”

Speaking of settlers, we then went from Hebron to Gush Etzion to have lunch with representatives from Efrat and Kiryat Arbah. In general, settlers would not be a group that would agree with J Street and the policies of a negotiated two-state solution, especially one that involves removing settlers from most of the West Bank, but J Street delegations seek to meet with people from all sides of the political spectrum.

While Hebron has never been fully discussed in any previous peace plan, the settlements of Gush Etzion would most likely remain in Israeli control in any future peace deal. The settlers are a challenging piece of Israeli society, raising issues of nationalism, economics and theology that cannot fully be parsed out here.

The settlers we met with all happened to be Americans who made aliyah (emigration to Israel by Jews) anywhere from thirty to two years ago. They were congenial, not hysterical and seemed to indicate that they only wanted to live their lives in peace in their land. We made a conscious choice as a group to not engage in any major disagreements, coming rather to listen and absorb what they shared.

While the conversation was polite, one comment did stick out for me: when discussing how Americans and Israelis have so many values in common, one woman said that she wasn’t sure Arabs shared those same values. They acted, in part, as if nothing was really wrong with the current system and if only the Palestinians would stop terror, all would be fine. It was as if what we saw in Hebron was natural and normal, the only way to operate. It was one of a few moments where I saw that the stronger and more powerful party in a conflict has the luxury to think and talk in ways that the oppressed party doesn’t. I tried to identify with them and their stories, but to be honest, I found it hard, which was sad for me as a Jew. It was a very challenging and difficult day.

We started my second day with a tremendous briefing by a national security official who placed the issues facing Israel within the context of the larger regional challenges. After a briefing at the Foreign Ministry, we spent some time at Yad V’shem. The Members of Congress laid a wreath and I was honored to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for the group as part of our official ceremony, at the podium on the floor of Yad v’Shem’s main hall. I was moved, and somewhat overwhelmed, by the power of that spot and the reciting of the Kaddish in such a hallowed place. There were tears and moments of silence, the screaming silence of history’s greatest tragedy that befell the Jewish people. We moved from there to the Knesset.

Participants lay a wreath at Yad Vashem (Reps Grijalva and Johnson pictured)

The contrast between the meetings with the Israeli policy makers and the Palestinian policy makers couldn’t have been starker. Save for the members of Meretz in Israel, most Israeli policy makers and officials said that there is no rush to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. Some of the Israeli members of Knesset felt that the Palestinians don’t want to make peace with Israel. Some of them thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t interested in making peace. It was intense to hear this inside the Knesset and one of the more challenging things to explain to American Jews. All I can report is that it was said by more than one of the members of Knesset.

There was some conversation about the fact that the status quo of “negotiations,” namely without a resolution, is all that Netanyahu wants, but again, it was hard to quantify that to those outside of the region, where this is a pretty common thread. There was agreement on both sides that negotiations which go nowhere, that have no positive outcome and that don’t lead to a final status agreement would be worse than no negotiations at all. The work of J Street and the urgency of a resolution couldn’t have been made clearer.

The meetings with the Palestinian leaders were much less rosy than those with the Israeli leaders. There is serious despair on the Palestinian side as they have little ability to run the Palestinian Authority without funds that keep getting held up by both the Israelis and the United States Congress. Without that money, which is almost 70% of their budget, they can’t pay salaries and the PA is the number one employer in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Fayyad is a practical man, someone who has tried hard to build infrastructure and prepare his people for peace with Israel. He is not an ideologue and doesn’t support Hamas at all. All of the Palestinian leaders we met with said they are ready to live side-by-side with Israel as neighbors in peace and harmony. They want a state based on 1967 borders with agreed swaps, as laid out in all of the major peace deals of the past. There was no mention of the right of return, always a huge sticking point, and they all voiced opposition to violence.

Interestingly, one of the points made was that despite all of the rhetoric against negotiating with Hamas, between the deal to release Gilad Shalit and the deal to end the recent battle in Gaza, Hamas has succeeded in getting more prisoners released than have all of the nonviolent attempts by the PA over the past several years. It was hard to ignore that irony.

Trip participants meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad

There is clearly a wide gap between the Israeli and Palestinian visions of a two-state solution, as too many of the settlements are in the Israeli plan to allow for a contiguous, viable Palestinian state. We saw places where four Palestinian villages were surrounded by the security barrier to protect neighboring settlements. We have read all about E-1, which we saw firsthand, but it is only a part of the problem. The growing despair of the Palestinians stems in large part from seeing more and more of their land taken by settlements, and the ever-expanding boundary around Jerusalem. If ever you want to understand why settlements are a huge obstacle to peace, all you need to do is come here and see it for yourselves.

During our bus rides from Jerusalem to the various sites we visited, we were joined by Israeli peace activists from Peace Now and Ir Amim, showing us in detail the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians in regard to land, water, roads and access to housing permits, both in Jerusalem and in the territories. It was quite helpful to see up close all of the issues that we have only read about, or worse, heard about from one perspective or the other without the full picture.

One of the greatest challenges facing Israel today is this: the bubble around the Israeli populace is keeping them from knowing about or engaging with what their military is doing in the territories. As Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street President, wrote in his reaction to the trip: “We heard very clearly the rising anger and frustration from Palestinians. While we were there, prisoners were on hunger strike again, large-scale protests were building, and it seems there is very little recognition of the rising frustration among Palestinians on the Israeli side of the green line.”

I was heartened to meet Israeli and Palestinian activists working hard, often with minimal success but maximum hope and courage, to better the conditions of ordinary people living with extraordinary challenges on a daily basis. I felt that I couldn’t despair or give up hope if the very people living with these realities maintained their hope for a better tomorrow.

Our final session was with three Israelis, all senior members of the Israeli NGO community and experts on the conflict. They left me feeling hopeful because they were optimistic about the prospects still available for ending the conflict.

They spoke of a turning tide in the Israeli electorate, as exhibited by the recent elections, which they believed were a sharp rebuke to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strident positions toward the Palestinians. They spoke of a growing number of young Palestinian businessmen, many of whom we met, that are ready to turn the corner from the aging and more cynical Palestinian leaders, to build a secular, economically viable and peaceful state of Palestine. They were working on creative solutions to the conflict, not waiting for government officials to dictate the process.

They spoke of a desire to have the American Jewish community active and vocal in supporting their work. They spoke of a desire to have President Obama directly address the young people of the region, the peace activists, who are working on the ground, often under the radar, to advance peace between the two peoples. They spoke of having President Obama attempt to get what the Israelis and Palestinians need from each other but can’t seem to give directly. And interestingly, they spoke of having Israel be a more concrete strategic partner with the United States, assisting America in areas such as agriculture, technology and with regional issues– a partnership in practice and not just in rhetoric. I found their optimism inspiring and it left me feeling that there is still a possibility that peace can bloom in this parched desert of opportunities lost.

I am grateful to J Street for the chance to have such high-level meetings, a comprehensive tour exposing us to the realities on the ground that Israelis and Palestinians are dealing with on a daily basis. I found myself understanding more fully the complexities and nuances that are often lost in the bifurcated, zero-sum conversations that take place in America. I was glad that members of Congress were exposed to these complexities and I pledged to support them in their efforts to educate and inspire their colleagues toward seeing things in this manner. It can only be good for Israel if more and more people can understand what is happening, in reality, on a daily basis, and raise a voice for a comprehensive peace deal now. I will keep exploring, meeting people, listening and sharing as I spend time here in Israel. It feels like a pretty auspicious time to be here–I am praying it is for the best. Shalom al yisrael, al yishmael, v’al kol yoshvei taivel, peace upon the children of Israel and Ishmael, and all beings.

RABBI JOSHUA LEVINE GRATER is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California. He is a member of both J Street’s Advisory Council and its Rabbinic Cabinet.