The two massive concrete caterpillars on a playground in Sderot, Israel, near the Gaza border, haven’t strayed from my thoughts for nearly a week. They double as bomb shelters for the children who play there, constantly under the threat of rocket fire from Hamas. Red lines are painted on the inside so the children, two-thirds of whom suffer from PTSD, know how far in they have to go so as not to be struck by shrapnel. I’ve seen these shelters several times, most recently three weeks ago with 34 friends and colleagues from 25 countries as part of a Young Jewish Leadership Diplomatic Seminar run by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Later that same day, we visited a nearby army base on the border with Gaza to receive a briefing from the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT). As we were sitting on an idling bus preparing to leave, my friend Victor raised his hand.
“Excuse me, where’s the nearest bomb shelter?” he asked the Israeli diplomat on board. “If we hear an alarm, which direction should we run?”
Hamas had fired a dozen or so rockets at Israel the day before.
“A rocket isn’t going to hit here,” said the diplomat, displaying nonchalance of which only an Israeli army veteran is capable. “And if it does, you’re safer on the bus. Just stay put.”
Victor’s eyes got a little wider. An uneasy silence filled the bus.
Sixteen days later nearly 200 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel. Thirty were intercepted by Iron Dome. One struck a synagogue. Thank God it was empty.
I’m still processing the seminar, during which we heard from Jewish religious and secular leaders; Jewish, Arab and Palestinian activists; right- and left-wing politicians and civil servants; and experts on economic and social issues.
In particular, I’m grappling with Adi, an undocumented African asylum seeker and college student from whom we spent a morning learning about her journey and her life in South Tel Aviv. If granted citizenship, she would be a productive member of Israeli society, and I despise the limbo in which the government has left her. Yet what other government would bring an undocumented immigrant to share her uncensored story with a group of activists and then let her go? Certainly not the United States.
I’m appalled by a member of Knesset we met who belonged to the Joint Arab List, the third largest political party in Israel. He insisted that Hamas is not a terrorist organization and that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is a legitimate form of nonviolent resistance. I would like to think that others in his party are more willing partners for peace but I am skeptical. He was the only one even willing to meet with us.
I’m troubled by a story that my roommate Benji, who leads missions to Israel for non-Jewish South Africans, shared with me. On a recent mission for black Africans, one of the participants approached a young Israeli security guard in Ben Gurion Airport.
“Can you please tell me where the bathroom is for people of color?” he asked.
The guard, astonished, told the man he had no idea what he was talking about.
“I grew up in apartheid South Africa and I really don’t want any trouble,” said the man, irked by the response he had received. “Where is the bathroom for people of color?”
The guard directed the man to the nearby men’s room and upon entering he saw a religious Muslim washing his hands. Something so simple changed his entire perspective on Israel.
The BDS movement spends more money on rhetoric in South Africa than any other country, Benji said. They believe that if they can convince the South African government to classify Israel as an apartheid state, it will be a significant victory for them.
I left Israel convinced that a two-state solution is the only path forward for lasting peace. Unfortunately, I’m also convinced that we’re as far away from a viable two-state solution as we’ve been in decades.
But there’s hope. Sunday morning I woke up to a group text from Celine, my colleague in Paris. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked her to give a talk on Jewish and Arab coexistence to French diplomats next week. And Olinka, my colleague in Warsaw, arranged two meetings with the Polish government.
In the meantime, we are organizing ourselves to provide support to each other as we strive to strengthen Israel and egalitarian Judaism in our communities throughout the world. PJC
Josh Sayles is the director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.