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Rabbi Alison Abrams, J Street’s Midwest Regional Director, is in Israel attending the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). She and Rabbi John Rosove the Co-Chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet will share their experiences with the J Street community over the next week. At the conclusion of the Conference a group of Rabbis including Andrea London will visit the West Bank for a few days. Rabbi London will share her reflections on that trip.
Before beginning my week of study, prayer and experiential learning with hundreds of other Reform rabbis in Israel, I participated in an Encounter program in East Jerusalem. I spent six hours with 20 other rabbis and Jewish leaders listening to Palestinian activists and community leaders talk about their experience living and working in a part of the city many Jews — American and Israeli — know little about.
This particular Encounter program interested me because East Jerusalem has been the backdrop for much of the news coming out of the region recently, mostly due to the stabbings regularly reported by the media. East Jerusalem is also unique in the challenges it presents for Palestinians living there.
I learned an amazing amount from the stories of these men and women and was reminded of the diversity and complexity of Palestinian experiences living under occupation. I was also reminded that there are many Palestinians grappling with the issues of leadership, urban development, education and cultural renewal to improve their lives and the lives of their communities even in the context of this occupation and increased violence.
The most poignant moments of the evening for me came from a session with a young Palestinian community leader who runs an educational bookstore and gathering space in East Jerusalem. The first of these moments was when he spoke about “the spirit of Jerusalem.” He said that his beloved city called for a spirit of sharing and inclusion; that if the bricks of the ancient walls of Jerusalem could speak, they would laugh at us for trying to control people and cities.
The second moment was at the end of the very long evening. One of the participants — a rabbi — asked a question that was on my mind as well: why did you want to speak to this group of American Jewish leaders and what do you hope we will bring back from this experience? His response: most Palestinians assume that the Israeli government speaks for the Jewish people. If American Jews think that the policies of this government should be different, they need to make that clear. In conclusion, he said, American Jews deserve better than Bibi Netanyahu.
While I may not have agreed with everything this man shared about his vision for the future, I could not agree more with his assessment that American Jews should take greater ownership of Israel’s future. The American Jewish community is central to the conversation about Israel’s future and the future of a city whose walls have great significance for many of us. I know that I am part of a large majority of American Jews whose ideas are not represented by a government invested in the expansion of settlements and an entrenchment of the occupation. I am part of a community that wants to see Israeli policy embody the values of democracy and equality on which the country was founded. As American Jews we need to insist that our Jewish communal institutions, our Congress and our President let Netanyahu know that the current path is not one we support. And we need to do it now. As I was reminded during my evening in East Jerusalem, time is not on our side.
Rabbi Alison Abrams is the Midwest Regional Director at J Street