Aliya Stories: Fighting for peace

Hillel Schenker, 75 moved from Brooklyn, New York to Tel Aviv in 1963.

Hillel Schenker (photo credit: BEN FISHER)
Hillel Schenker
(photo credit: BEN FISHER)
It’s the era of Jewish Agency-organized El Al aliya flights to Israel and most olim you meet these days still have the Nefesh b’Nefesh baseball cap as a souvenir from their voyage. Many decades ago, however, olim came to Israel in a different fashion.
Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the quarterly The Palestine-Israel Journal, made aliya from the United States as a 21-year-old in 1963 and arrived in Israel by boat.
“I arrived just two weeks before [US president John F.] Kennedy was assassinated,” he tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine in the east Jerusalem offices of the journal.
“I came with the ideal of coming to a kibbutz, which I considered to be a cornerstone of Israeli society and a role model for humanity as a whole.”
He joined Kibbutz Barkai, between Hadera and Afula, with his wife, soon had a daughter, and dedicated himself to a singular goal.
“I put myself fully into becoming an Israeli. I was leaving America behind. The ideal was that our child was going to grow up in a Hebrew-speaking environment. Even though there were many people from North America in the kibbutz, there was a policy of speaking only Hebrew in public places.”
Four years after Schenker arrived, the Six Day War broke out. Because Barkai was a border kibbutz, it participated in a special arrangement between the kibbutz movement and the army.
“Instead of doing regular army service, we would defend the kibbutz in time of need, in time of crisis. From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. my friends and I were assigned to defend the perimeters with rifles that none of us had ever fired because we hadn’t been given training.
Obviously, this was not the greatest idea, and when the war was over both the kibbutz movement and the army realized that this was not a viable, realistic way of doing things, and so they steadily drafted everyone who had been in this arrangement.”
Though Barkai was quiet during the war, Schenker says, “I remember at night, on the top of the hill, seeing the Battle of Jenin. We saw the red trace of bullets firing back and forth.”
After the war, Schenker was drafted.
“I did a three-month basic training at Gush Etzion and the beginnings of Kiryat Arba,” he says. “My professional training was the combat engineering corps. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, I ended up being mobilized and spending eight months on the front lines on the Golan Heights.”
His brigade was sent to recapture Mount Hermon, which had been conquered by the Syrians.
“That was really the longest day of my life. War is hell and fire and brimstone,” Schenker says quietly. “We encountered dead bodies, some Israeli and some Syrian… That was really the turning point in my life that led me on the path that I have been on ever since.”
“Until then I had been living on a kibbutz,” Schenker says. “I was a shepherd, a music teacher, a singer-songwriter. I had begun studying literature at Tel Aviv University. I thought I might eventually make an academic career in that direction.”
After eight months of war, however, his priorities changed.
“Suddenly, I no longer had the desire, the drive to create music. Literature didn’t seem as important as it did before. I came to the realization that my new priorities were as follows: If the challenge of the founding generation of Israeli society was to establish a state, and if the challenge of the second generation was to defend the state, then my generation’s challenge was to achieve peace with our neighbors, to guarantee the future of the state. I began looking for a channel to be able to do that.”
That channel emerged in 1977 when he was hired as the managing editor of the English-language New Outlook magazine, which was founded in the spirit of Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue to promote peace in the region.
Schenker worked at the magazine for 13 years, including three years that he spent in New York, where he coordinated a joint Israeli-Palestinian conference at Columbia University that was “a stepping-stone that led to the Oslo Accords and the mutual recognition between the PLO and the Israeli government, which still is in the background of whatever is being done [in the arena of peacemaking] today.”
New Outlook closed in 1990. Schenker pursued a master’s degree in communications from Clark University and edited the Women’s International Zionist Organization’s monthly magazine, while still continuing his writing and activism.
Then, after the Oslo peace accords were signed, the Palestine-Israel Journal was born.
“It was decided by a group of Israelis and Palestinians, journalists and academics, led by veteran Israeli and Palestinian journalists Victor Cygielman and Ziad AbuZayyad, the founding co-editors, that now is the time to found a joint journal, which had always been one of the dreams of the editors of New Outlook as well,” he says. The journal was founded as “a vehicle that would enable people to understand the two perspectives,” as Schenker puts it.
The journal has a specific target audience and “doesn’t aim to be a mass publication with hundreds of thousands of readers.” Instead, Schenker hopes to reach students, academics, activists and decision makers.
Each issue of the journal has a central theme: Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli and Palestinian youth have been recent topics. Everything at the journal is done on an egalitarian basis. There is a Palestinian co-editor and an Israeli co-editor and equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians on the editorial board. Schenker has been co-editor since 2005 along with his Palestinian counterpart, Ziad Abu Zayyad.
Although chances today for a two-state solution look slimmer than ever, Schenker still comes to east Jerusalem nearly every day from his home in Tel Aviv.
“I am one of the few Israelis coming on a regular basis to work together with Palestinians to produce something concrete, despite all of the difficulties going through the second intifada and all of the wars with Gaza. I even continued coming during the so-called knife intifada in the fall. Here I am, doing this work.”
And Schenker hasn’t lost hope.
“There are a lot of people who would say the very fact that a joint journal continues to exist based on mutual respect, mutual recognition, mutual agreement on the idea of a two-state solution as a resolution to the conflict is inspirational.
It’s been difficult, but I continue to believe that it’s essential.
“We cannot give up; we have to keep seeking a resolution to the conflict for all of our sakes. For the sakes of our children, our grandchildren, for the sake of Israeli society and for both peoples. Because both peoples deserve to live in peace and cooperation.”