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Is Israeli Society Just?

Posted on 07/21/2010 @ 07:10 PM

PDI Israel

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By Shayna Kreisler, Director of Civic Engagement and Leadership

Today we traveled to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. We will be in the first Hebrew city from today through Shabbat before heading to the north to continue our studies. Tel Aviv sits in a near stark contrast to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is in the hills, and Tel Aviv sits on the Mediterranean. Jerusalem is dry, and Tel Aviv is not! Jerusalem is religious and Tel Aviv is seen as more secular. Jerusalem is perceived as ancient and Tel Aviv is seen as modern - even as the oldest Hebrew City (also known as Tel Aviv-Jaffa) from it's architecture to it's attitude and it's embrace of the ever changing landscape of Israeli culture and society. It has been the perfect setting to really start looking at different aspects of society that you normally would not think of when you think of Israel. Israel has many archeological sites, and until we arrived here, I did not realize that Tel Aviv was one of them. It has even been named as a UNESCO site, one of the few in the world. The day started off with a visit to the Religious LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered) community. We met with two of the leaders of this community, Eyal Lieberman and Zehorit Sorek, who shared with us their personal stories of how they came to find themselves in this community and what it really means to be a religious Jew who is also Lesbian/Gay. They answered our questions which ranged from how they celebrate Shabbat, to what the implications are for being gay in the military in Israel (since service is mandatory for nearly all of it's citizens) and what they think of the USA policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". This center is one of the only places for those who are both religious and gay in Israel, and it was evident that it is a need in the community.

From The LGBT Center, the PDI group split in two in order to cover more ground. The group I was with went to Jaffa, at the southern edge of Tel Aviv. Jaffa is one of the oldest communities in Israel, settled before Tel Aviv, and is home to a large Arab population (about 50, 000 – 60,000 Arabs live there out of the 3 million in Tel Aviv who are Jewish). In Jaffa, the Jews and the Arabs have lived side by side for a very long time - it is a part of what the community is all about, an everyday, normal part of life. In economic terms, Jaffa is also considered a low-income area, with many people (both Jewish and Arab) living in poverty. The place we visited is called the Jaffa Institute. The Institute has been around for 28 years providing programming (both after school and summer) for children ages 6-12, in many cases, this is the place for children and families who have no where else to turn for social services and education beyond school. There are four centers throughout Jaffa which support a variety of people from different backgrounds - Jewish, Arab, Ethiopian, and others. The majority of the students at the center we visited were either Jewish or Arab, and all were under served. As an educator, visiting the Jaffa Institute was very meaningful for me. I was excited to learn about the work being done there. Not only are the students a mix of Jews and Arabs, the staff are as well. The Institute does not just provide programming to keep the children busy; they really try to holistically educate the children in their care. They work with the social worker, the teachers and the parents, they run groups for new mother's to teach them parenting skills, and just a important, they teach the Arab children how to read and write Hebrew, and they teach the Jewish Children how to read and write Arabic. The philosophy of the Jaffa Institute is to present children with choices, and to let them make decisions for themselves, helping them foster a life long desire for knowledge. In speaking with the staff, it was apparent that building community between the Jewish and Arab population is an important part of life in Jaffa.

Group number 2 went to meet and speak with Immigrant Workers in Tel Aviv. However, since I cannot be in two places at one time, Rebekah Smith, another member of our cohort, will be guest blogging to share a little bit about this piece of the PDI Israel experience (coming soon!).

After our two groups finished visiting with each of the organizations, we met back at our hotel for what may have been one of the most meaningful pieces of the program so far, hearing from and speaking with two Darfurian refugees from the organization B'ani Darfur, Asine and Avodyah. Their two stories were difficult, but extremely important to hear. Not only did they tell us about their own experience fleeing Darfur, they told us what happened after they were forced from their homeland. How Avodyah went to Egypt and was kicked out (like so many other refugees), and that he needed to pay someone to smuggle him into Israel. That once he arrived here, the soldiers in the IDF did not know what to do with him because he is a Muslim man. He was put in prison for two years (for the protection of the state of Israel, and also largely because there was not an understanding from the IDF of what kind of Muslims these people from Darfur are). After his time in prison he was then sent to a Kibbutz to work for two more years in a kind of protective custody. At the end of all of this, Avodayah and other Darfurian men were put in a van and taken to Tel Aviv where they were dumped off onto a street without any money, jobs or places to stay.

The biggest question I walked away wanting to know the answer to, was what responsibility does Israel have for these men who all have similar stories to Avodayah and Asine? Clearly, it is a financial burden to the state to support them with social services, but if they are sent back to Darfur, they will almost certainly be put back in grave danger, and this would be a violation of the value Pikuach Nefesh (the saving of a human life, no matter if they are Jewish or not). The reason the IDF had such a terrible time understanding what to do with these people is because Darfur is considered to be an Muslim country, but it is split, with 80% of the population being African Muslims or Christians and 15% being Arab Islamic and the remaining 5% being "non-believers" or tribal people. Darfur is a case of the minority ruling the majority. There is a large identity conflict in the country because Arab Muslims and African Muslims are two very different kinds of Muslims. While many of us knew some of the basics of the Darfur/Sudanese conflict, not one of us heard the story as told so eloquently as it was by Avodayah and Asine - I think it raised our level of consciousness around the conflict (which still goes on) and reignited passion in many of us to continue to keep shedding light on the situation. If you want to find out more about B'nai Darfur and how you can help, visit their site at: www.bnaidarfur.org.

While it seems like it was a long day (and it was!) we still had dinner to eat. We went as a group to the restaurant Liliyot, which is unlike many other eating establishments. Liliyot The restaurant integrates a social project into the business of the restaurant by working with youth at risk. Liliyot provides these teens with a real opportunity to integrate into society in a positive way through professional training in a real business setting. Liliyot is a part of the nonprofit organization Elem, an organization that works with youth at risk. Their mission is to provide the means for people to live their lives honorably. Needless to say, not only was this a wonderful way to end our first day in Tel Aviv with a wonderful organization, the meal they made for us was incredible. To truly understand the effort and thought behind our meal and the restaurant that provided it was extremely satisfying and fulfilling.

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