Jaclyn Cohen, a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has been writing at her “Almost a Rav” blog on her experience of Partners’ week-long Israel Symposium, which ended this past Saturday.
Highlights of the concluding day for Ms. Cohen included meetings with Robi Damelin — the articulate spokesperson for the Parents Circle Families Forum of Israelis and Palestinians bereaved by the conflict — and what she described as “a heated discussion” with +972 Magazine CEO and writer Noam Sheizaf. The final speaker who met with the group was Colette Avital, Israel’s consul-general in New York during the Rabin administration and a Labor party MK for a number of years after; she is now a member of Meretz.
Earlier in the week, Ms. Cohen was especially enthusiastic about seeing Ramallah and the newly emerging city of Rawabi:
What I wasn’t prepared for at all was how much it would move me. Not only the city of Ramallah or the absolutely extraordinary achievement that is the city of Rawabi, which you should Google immediately (and I’d provide a hyperlink if I could) but … the people. The stories they told. The sprawling development of the cities. The incredible graciousness with which people welcomed us. Their desire to make us comfortable. Their creativity, innovation, and drive. Their hopes and dreams. Their humanity. It moved me to tears.
The most memorable and emotional part of today was sitting down for an hour and a half with Dr. Muhammad Shtayyeh. Now, if you Google Dr. Shtayyeh you will find that he is one of the two Palestinian representatives involved in the current negotiations between Israel and Palestine. He and his partner Saeb Erekat have the expectations of the entire Arab world on their shoulders right now. Needless to say, I was a little surprised that he met with our group.
But there he was, talking with us, being one part charismatic politician and one part human being, one part father, brother, & friend, and one part pragmatic and honest and hopeful optimist. Hearing his hopes and frank (and, frankly, relatable) expectations and goals for the process toward a two-state solution was … I mean, how do you even blog about that … ? How can I even put it into words? I feel incredibly fortunate to have been in his presence and to add his pieces to my continuously evolving narrative of Israel. It was a gift, even if I didn’t agree with every single thing he said.
And yes, of course what he said was skewed. Of course it was loaded. But I can say the same exact thing for the people we met with at Knesset one day before. I can say it about any of us. We see our lives through the prism of that which we want to believe. Our truths are our own. And it became very clear to me after talking with him that in order for people to really, truly form an opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, they need to actually see both places with their own eyes. In order to understand, we must first seek to be understood. And that means bearing witness to it all with our own set of eyes.
Rawabi was … I mean, it was amazing. It’s a planned city that’s an investment by the billionaire Bashar Masri, whom we met. It’s a commercial and housing development that is neither religious nor secular. The first buildings they built are schools. They’ve provided the local economy with thousands of jobs. There will be a church and a mosque. There’s an industrial center for collaborative projects between Israelis and Palestinians. A third of their workforce are women. And the woman who gave us the tour was a carbon copy of Rumaisa, my friend from NewGround: energetic, brilliant, passionate, and just delightful. The best part of Rawabi? Aside from the fact that it was stunningly beautiful it was also a tremendous symbol: innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, and bold. I feel honored to have seen it going up.
On another day, she called her post on visiting the Negev and encountering the situation in a Bedouin community “A difficult day.” Cohen also included more on Rawabi: its “developers sought advice from world-renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, touring the Israeli town of Modi’in with him and surveying his extraordinary Mamilla Mall for inspiration. I did [not] add that there are plans to create a collaborative industrial park for Israelis and Palestinians.”
On the following day, she welcomed a time of “Hope & Healing” in the visit to Givat Haviva and dining that evening with Meretz Members of Knesset and other leading party activists. Givat Haviva began decades ago as the seminar center of the kibbutz movement launched by the Hashomer Hatzair radical youth movement. It continues today as a center dedicated to education, vocational training and Jewish-Arab cooperation and equality. Cohen described her sense of it as “this calm, tranquil, kibbutz-like center near Hadera in the north. One of those places where you pull into the driveway and feel your entire body relax.”