Originally from Brooklyn, Merle Wolofsky served as Executive Director of the Jewish People’s/Peretz Schools and Bialik High School in Montreal, until her retirement in 2001. She was deeply involved in several Montreal federation and education agencies until she left Montreal in 2008, moving to Boston. She is a member of Jewish/Muslim dialogue groups in both Montreal and Boston. The following is adapted (with Ms. Wolofsky’s permission) from a talk she gave at her synagogue about this recent experience in Israel:
|Merle Wolofsky takes notes (rt.) in meeting with Meretz MK Ilon Gilon.|
This talk will not be trying to convey the whole complexity of the Middle East. It also does not reflect the recognition that Israel today is a miracle of social, economic, scientific, artistic creativity accomplished by a people who in 1945 were broken. My quest is to try to understand what is blocking what seems obvious. I know the history and how we got here starting with the initial rejection and subsequent wars. I have spent a lot of time with Israelis and I understand and share their existential fears. What I do not understand is why the Palestinians don’t buy into the peace being offered. Who are they and what are they so afraid of?
It was in this frame of mind that I signed onto the Israel Symposium of Partners for Progressive Israel. We spent seven very intense days together and I think it is fair to say that each of us brought out interesting perspectives from our presenters, and that the interchange amongst us definitely enriched our experience. As you will see our exposure was wide.
The stage was set by Professor Naomi Chazan, a former MK and ex-president of the New Israel Fund. She warned us not to believe anyone who claimed to know what was going on in the peace talks as confidentiality was being maintained. There’s the concept of “linkage” between issues. She said that the release of prisoners was Netanyahu’s selection from the three options he was faced with to get the talks going: a settlement freeze, relenting on his demand to keep the Jordan Valley, or a release of prisoners. She told us that if a deal is reached at the table it would require a country-wide referendum and a change in the coalition to pass.
She listed all the domestic issues such as economic discrepancies, cost of living, pensions, education, housing, health care, working poor, separation of religion & state, women in the public sphere, the treatment of asylum seekers. She closed by outlining proposed new laws that would threaten democracy by somehow making the Knesset able to overrule the Supreme court, limiting the size of the cabinet and raising the popular vote threshold for election to the Knesset from 2% to 4%. (She felt that the latter would further restrict Arab influence on government.) Lastly, she completely dismissed Yair Lapid, as did everyone else who mentioned him.Our time at the Knesset was packed with intimate meetings with MKs. Meretz is represented by six in the Knesset, including the only Arab in a Jewish party. They are young, enthusiastic and deeply concerned about social issues, democracy, environment and human rights for all. Polls show an upswing in support.
Others we met included: Speaker of the Knesset [from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party], Yuli Edelstein, a former Soviet prisoner of conscience; a Jewish Communist in an Arab party, Dov Khenin; one of the contestants for the leadership of Labor [Isaac Herzog, who was just elected as the Labor party’s new leader]; and a very exciting Labor MK, Erel Margalit, who was a founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners — a self-made rich man who has a vision for investment in communities such as Haredim, Israeli Arab towns and in Palestinian communities. The final Israeli official we met was Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, whose message really was that the status quo can and will be maintained.We received an overview of the state of Israeli journalism & society from Aluf Benn, editor in chief of Haaretz. The traditional print press is facing the same challenges in Israel as it is here, coupled by competition from Sheldon Adelson’s free daily newspaper that completely supports Bibi Netanyahu [Yisrael Hayom]. The left wing press is very critical of government policies re peace, settlements, pandering to the ultra-Orthodox, and attitudes toward the conflict in surrounding countries. Bibi is portrayed as a man ruled by fear who will not act until he has no alternative. He cannot even control members of his cabinet. There is also a vibrant online media that reaches out to the young and interestingly to people in the surrounding countries. The ones we heard from reflect the left. Everyone felt that Lapid was a huge disappointment. He isn’t even addressing the social issues that he promised about in his campaign.We met with several NGOs from whom we learned that several non-official talks are still going on between Israelis and Palestinians. We met representatives of the Geneva Initiative, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information [IPCRI], the Molad think tank and Terrestrial Jerusalem.There are earnest Israelis working to insure social justice for all represented by B’Tselem, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Gisha, Defense for Children international, Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum and Rabbis for Human Rights. We also met with a Reform rabbi who told us that the movement is growing.We visited the Givat Haviva Institute, run jointly by Jewish and Arab Israelis. It’s all about building relationships between these Israeli communities. All of these people would be considered left wingers.
Our exposure to the right was much more limited. We met with Avi Dichter, a former head of Shin Bet and one of the interviewees from “The Gatekeepers.” He came across as much harder and unlike he did in the movie. And Ruchie Avital, a representative of the settler movement. While she strongly feels that Jews have a right to be in the West Bank, she did say that if her government told her to move, she would.Part 2 of my report deals with issues outside of the normal Israeli exposure of most North Americans.