Meet the J Streeters: Seven Questions with Amos Gil

August 24, 2020

Meet Amos Gil, J Street’s Capital South Regional Director.

Before coming to work at J Street, Amos was the leader of a few of Israel’s most well-respected advocacy groups, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the nonprofit Ir-Amim, which specializes in the special circumstances of Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Captain (Res.) in the IDF and a former Captain at Israeli Police Headquarters, Amos most recently served as CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA before joining J Street in 2019.

What can you share about your experience in the IDF?

I joined one of Israel’s elite intelligence units right after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the country was in total turmoil.

I remember being posted to the Golan Heights just before the war formally ended. Tensions were very high. The Syrian army was just a few hundreds of meters away and we never knew when to expect a possible attack. When the snow melted, we discovered a Syrian helicopter that had been shot down nearby. We held a joint ceremony of returning the bodies of five Syrian soldiers from inside. It was a bizarre, moving and memorable moment. My army service lasted five years, beyond the three mandatory years and not counting my (many) years in the reserve before and after that.

You lived through the second intifada, in the early 2000s. What was that experience like?

It was horrific, especially in Jerusalem. You never knew where the next bomb would go off or where the next suicide terrorist would appear. Hundreds of Israelis were killed in our streets, coffee places, buses and malls during those years (and many more Palestinians were also killed.)

This is what led to most Israelis walling themselves off to engagement with the Palestinians, and closing their hearts to their suffering under the occupation. For so many Israelis, Palestinians live just on the other side of the wall — which was built in those years — but they may as well be living on the other side of the planet.

But for me personally, these were the years I came to know Palestinians the best. I ran a nonprofit working on issues revolving around the city of Jerusalem, so again and again I was meeting with Palestinians from East Jerusalem. I discovered what should be obvious: For the most part, Palestinians are just like Israelis. They want the very same things. They want peace and reconciliation, they want a reasonable compromise, and they want a “normal” life.

We demonize each other on both sides, and with political leaders who don’t have the courage to take risks for peace, it’s easy to become disillusioned and give up hope. But you have to remember that at the core, the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians want the same thing — peace and security — and as long as that’s the case, peace is possible.

What was your first experience of the occupation?

I have been a Jeruselamite all of my life. But despite my army service, my years with the police and my years in civil liberties advocacy, I still had no real understanding of the occupation and its impact on Palestinians — or even on my own city.

It is only after I started Ir Amim — an organization dedicated to the complexities of life in Jerusalem — that I really “discovered” and fully comprehended the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It was only then, seeing it up close, that I realized how most Israelis like me simply don’t “get” it. We don’t understand the extent to which the governments, both left and right, have managed to make the occupation invisible, a non-issue, something not worth considering.

But after seeing it you can’t unsee it. Since then, advocacy related to the occupation has been my driving force, and it’s what ultimately led me to J Street.

The NGO in Jerusalem you started is now quite well known: Ir Amim. Can you tell us a bit more about what it does and how it came to be?

Ir Amim means “City of Peoples” or “City of Nations”. We wanted to make the point that we deal both with the peoples who live in the city and share it — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners — as well as the political aspects of the city.

The goal is to “explain” Jerusalem to everybody who has an interest in understanding the complexities of the city, and the impacts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It’s about understanding the politics of the city, and the experiences of those who live within it. About their impacts on each other, and the differences and commonalities in the political aspirations of all Jerusalemites.

Is Jerusalem united? Divided? Mixed? What is it likely to become under each political solution, or if there is no solution? What is the real long-term Isareli interest when it comes to the city? And is Israel taking the right steps in order to achieve its goals?

As an Israeli working at J Street, what do you want American Jews to understand about Israel and why our work matters?

I want American Jews to appreciate that Israel is a real place, not a fairytale. There are wonderful things in it, but there are also things that are not so wonderful. Israel is extremely multi-layered and fascinating — but one of the fascinating (and problematic) things is that Israel has not fully reckoned and reconciled with it’s past, or indeed its present. As an Israeli, I believe we must do so if we are to assure a thriving future.

Working in the space I do, I have watched J Street for years. I watched its initial struggles for recognition and acknowledgement, right through to its current stage as a leading organization in the Jewish mainstream. Its success has been because it acknowledges the nuances and the challenges Israel faces, and because J Street challenges us to apply our liberal democratic values, and the values taught by Jewish philosophy, to what our support for Israel must look like.

Today, J Street’s supporters have significant influence on Capitol Hill and the organization has been crucial in helping the majority of pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Jews make their voices heard. The challenges are still out there, and we still battle to have elected officials acknowledge the threats posed by indefinite occupation, but I could not have joined this organization at a better time.

What’s one of the most frustrating things about working on this issue?

The MOST frustrating thing is the political leadership of both Israel and Palestine (not to mention the current leadership of this country!), which — instead of leading their peoples toward reconciliation and peace — work to infuse fear, wrong myth and distrust. When this trend is supported by the US leadership as well, it is a sure recipe for chaos and endless conflict.

What do you miss most about Israel?

The thing I miss the most about Israel are my kids, especially since COVID means I can’t make plans to go visit them as I otherwise would have.

I’m proud of all of them. My oldest daughter moved to Switzerland for her postdoc in biology, no mean feat at the height of COVID-19. My second daughter is a Development Director for one of Israel’s leading social-oriented organizations, and COVID-19 has been impacting them significantly. My son, 24, is just out of his IDF service and finds himself a bit stuck, as we all do, figuring out what’s ahead. We don’t have any idea whether school will be on campus or online, a huge difference.

Not knowing when we will be able to see each other next, it’s extraordinarily difficult.

My friends back there, too, are a huge source of support for me, and with them too, I can only communicate these days by way of technology. Jerusalem — its streets, history, shops and special atmosphere — is a place I miss daily.

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