Israel is my chosen home. I decided at the age of 16 that I would make Israel my home. At the age of 22, I moved from New York to Israel and I have never regretted my decision. Israel was never a perfect country, no country is. But when I immigrated to Israel, it was a land of hope and opportunity that I don’t see today.
When I spent my gap year in Israel in 1974-75 on Young Judaea’s Year Course program, I spent half a year on kibbutz and half a year studying in Jerusalem. I learned from my teachers that immigrating to Israel is not simply a change of address, it must be a change in the essence of our life. Becoming an Israeli was making a commitment to making Israel a better country. I learned during that year that Israel faced three cardinal problems: social-economic gaps between citizens (the gaps between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews), the questions surrounding the citizenship of the Arab citizens of Israel (the one of every six Israelis then who were referred to as “Israeli Arabs”), and the issue regarding the Palestinian people and land conquered in June 1967 and which is under Israel’s military control.
The issue which I was most interested in was the Palestinian question. As a university student in the United States, I started studying and meeting Palestinians and other Arabs to try to understand what they wanted. I visited the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) where the PLO enjoyed observer status in the United Nations. In 1976, I met with the PLO top representative and suggested to him that the PLO should recognize Israel and accept a Palestinian state on the land Israel conquered in the June 1967 war. His response was “over my dead body, you Jews stole our land and we will take it back”. While not unexpected, the response was depressing.
In my heart of hearts, I believed that one day the PLO would face the reality of Israel’s existence and decide that liberating part of their land was better for them than having nothing. When I immigrated to Israel in 1978, I decided that until the Palestinian issue was ripe, I would devote my energies to helping create a more democratic and equal Israel by working on trying to improve the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. I joined a volunteer organization called Interns for Peace and went to live and work in the Arab village of Kafr Qara for two years.
I LEARNED that Jewish-Arab relations in Israel had to become the state’s responsibility to ensure equality and not only the work of volunteer civil society organizations. I wrote a letter to prime minister Menachem Begin with the proposal that Israel needed to employ people to work on this issue. Prime Minister Begin answered my letter and I was invited to come to Jerusalem to meet with this Advisor on Arab Affairs. From that meeting, I was referred to the Minister of Education Mr. Zvelun Hammar from the National Religious Party.
With the assistance of Member of Knesset Mohammad Watad from Mapam, who found a line in the state budget to fund my position, I was hired and went to work in the Ministry of Education. I was a young man, a new immigrant and was given a high-level position in the Ministry. The Ministry’s main policy document issued by the Director General, Eliezer Shmueli, signed on to the new policies that I developed, including encouraging Jewish and Arab schools to participate in and encounter meetings between them.
I fought for budgets to assist in those programs and eventually was granted money to work with. With Neve Shalom-Wahat Salaam, we developed a training program for the co-facilitation of the meetings. With Aluf Hareven, from the Van Leer Institute, we created a State Committee for Evaluating Education for Democracy and Coexistence (as we called building a shared society then). The committee was headed by Deputy Director General Aryeh Shuval and I was a member of the committee. Our main operative recommendation was to establish a Department for Education for Democracy and Coexistence, which was implemented by the next Minister of Education, Former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon.
I then created the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, which I directed in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Education, funded primarily by the German Hans Seidel Foundation. I did that until the first intifada exploded when I left that work to begin to address the issue of Israel and Palestine.
I believed then and for many years that Israel could fulfill the terms of its own definition as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people on the condition that the Palestinian people would be able to live in their own country, in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, side-by-side with Israel. The first intifada and the subsequent Palestinian Declaration of Independence in November 1988 gave credence to my claims.
I believed that if there would be peace between Israel and Palestine, then the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel would no longer be seen as suspect for their identification with their people and not their state and then true equality within Israel could be achieved. That was the basis of my support for the two-states solution. I also believed that it was immoral and unjust that we Jews who suffered so much persecution could treat Palestinians in the same ways that we were treated. Furthermore, economically, socially and politically for Israel in the international community, Israeli-Palestinian peace made sense and was for me, clearly in Israel’s interest.
The failure of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians
But we failed; we did not make peace. The Palestinian state wasn’t created; settlements grew and expanded. The Israeli occupation is deeper and wider than ever and Palestinians have suffered at Israel’s hands in ways that are totally unacceptable to any human being who can objectively look at our situation. Israel has the right to defend itself, but that defense does not include the denial of political, civil and human rights to millions of people. Our tragedy is that for the time being, those who oppose peace with the Palestinians have won.
The two-states solution is probably no longer viable but that does not remove the most basic fact that millions of Jews and millions of Palestinians live on this small piece of land between the river and the sea. This issue has become more existential than ever and I refuse to give in to despair. Our survival as a people is more dependent on our making peace with the Palestinian people than on any other issue. Without having a defined solution to this conflict, I will continue to work every day to try to help us all to find the path back to the negotiating table and back to the hope that one day, we will live in peace.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to peace between Israel and its neighbors. He is a founding member of Kol Ezraheiha-Kol Muwanteneiha (All of the Citizens) political party in Israel. He is now directing The Holy Land Bond and is the Middle East Director for the ICO – International Communities Organization.