For Rabbi Art Donsky, there are many different faces to Israel, and he recently went searching for one in particular.
The spiritual leader of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, and co-leader of J Street Pittsburgh, just returned “from a 12-day trip to Israel and Palestine,” stated his press release. While there, he met with several human and civil rights groups, learning first-hand the perspectives of the Palestinian people and getting a feel for the prospects for peace via a two-state solution.
Donsky will share his experiences on Friday, Feb. 26, at Temple Ohav Shalom’s Shabbat evening service at 7:30 p.m.
“Most Americans go to visit Israel on tours or educational programs, and they see one Israel,” Donsky said. “But there are many different faces of Israel.”
“The reason for me [to take this trip] was to really see on the ground and up front what I’ve read about, what I’ve heard about, and to come away with some real knowledge,” he said.
Donsky has prepared a power point presentation including photographs illustrating Palestinians displaced by settlers and the Israel Defense Forces, the effect of the West Bank barrier on Palestinians, and maps illustrating the progressive loss of Palestinian-controlled territory over the last 62 years.
“Five years ago, I was on the other side of this discussion,” he said. “For me, the second intifada was heartbreaking. It dealt a horrible blow to the peace camp. We so quickly get defensive about our own narrative, the Israel narrative.”
“In 2005 I went to Sderot and saw what Hamas did with its constant rockets, and there’s no justification for that,” Donsky said. “But we have to take a step back and say there needs to be justice on all sides.”
The highlight of his trip, Donsky said, was his participation in the Encounter program, which exposes current and future Jewish Diaspora leaders to Palestinian life.
The Encounter program introduced Donsky to three young Palestinian men who follow the teachings of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., and who are working to break the cycle of violence in their communities.
“Since the second intifada, there’s been a growing movement of teaching non-violence as a way of dealing with the conflict from the Palestinian side,” Donsky said.
The media fails to publicize the movement of nonviolence, said Donsky, but it is very real nonetheless.
“Which is the media going to pay attention to?” he asked. “It’s not going to focus on three men and the different organizations where Jews and Palestinians work together.”
Having moved to Israel last August, Rabbi Danny Schiff, former community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, disagrees.
If there were strong Palestinian support for a non-violent solution to the conflict “it would make world news,” said Schiff, who resides in Jerusalem. While a few Palestinian peace activists may “whisper” their aspirations to a handful of Americans, “it’s not in the Palestinian newspapers,” Schiff said. “They would be dead tomorrow.”
“There is no evidence that even a small minority of Palestinians think that way. There is no evidence that the Palestinian government — put government in quotation marks — will go that way,” Schiff said.
“Israel is at war,” Schiff said. “It hasn’t ceased being at war for 63 years. The war is not always on the battlefield, but it is a war of terrorism, delegitimization, and a clear attempt by the Palestinians to convince the world that there should not be a Jewish state.
“No Palestinian group has accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” Schiff continued. “Most Palestinians support Hamas. Hamas is supported by Iran. And Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel.
“Like any country in war, Israel has to take its security and future viability seriously.”
While in Israel, Donsky also visited with members of several Misgav area communities from Rakafet, Yaad and Manoff as well as families in the neighboring Arab villages of Shakhnin and Arabe, and met with some of the leaders of the Israel NGO Sikkuy, a civil equality organization led by Israeli Arabs and Jews.
He also participated in a Rabbis for Human Rights program for Otzma participants, a day in Hebron with Breaking the Silence, and an afternoon with Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.
Lamenting the span of the barrier wall, which he said is “twice as long as the Green Line,” Donsky noted that some considered it a “land grab.” He is concerned that if such an expansion of the wall continues, along with settlement proliferation in the West Bank, it could impede the chance for a two-state solution.
“As an active member of J Street, I believe the parties need to be encouraged to sit down and negotiate. There is an understanding that negotiations are obviously difficult and complex. From the Israeli side, letting the status quo exist and continuing to build settlements will only make it a fait accompli,” he said.
“There are some people, Palestinians and Israelis, that desperately want to live in peace,” Donsky continued. “For many of us, having two states is the only way to solve the conflict.”
Schiff believes that while most Israelis would like to see Palestinian conditions improved, the fate of the Palestinians rests in their own hands.
“Every Israeli would say that in an ideal situation, the conditions under which Israelis and Arabs live need to be improved, and they would like to see the settlement issue improved,” Schiff said.
“But look at what happened in Gaza,” he continued. “We left, and we had a war of attrition in Gaza. We left Lebanon, and there was a war of attrition for Hezbollah. The fastest way to [have Israelis] stop building in the territories is for the Palestinians to come up with a border for a respected Jewish state. The settlement problems are very much in their own hands.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)