The Blog

Blog Post 3

Monday, December 11th, 2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the last night of the trip. We have a full day ahead tomorrow, but the participants are headed to the airport right after Shabbat dinner. Today was another excellent PI day.

Let’s recap:

Due to our shifting plans, we were able to reschedule the helicopters for today and wow, what a special experience. First of all, Israel truly is a beautiful country; from the air, almost overwhelmingly so. Additionally, the perspective that the birds-eye view grants is invaluable for those hoping to understand the security realities of the place.

From Sde Dov airport in Tel Aviv, we took off in three choppers for Mt. Bental in the Golan Heights. After flying over much of central Israel, and over the Galilee and the Kinneret—moving experiences for the religious Christians in our group—we arrived in the Golan. We spent an hour overlooking Syria and Lebanon, receiving an in-depth briefing on the ever-changing security situation.

We boarded the helicopters again for our longest leg down to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the border with Gaza. There, we heard from a young mother who grew up on the kibbutz and is now raising her children there, with the specter of Gaza’s rockets looming over their lives. She told us her story—rockets, tunnels, walls, safe rooms, PTSD, death—and helped us understand all of the abnormalities of life in that place.

Without reservation,the approach by helicopter over the Old City of Jerusalem was one of the most beautiful sights of my life, a sentiment that was shared by many in the group.

Waiting for us, in our group room, was Elias Zananiri of the PLO. Much to the group’s surprise, not only was he not upset about Trump’s announcement, he was in fairly good spirits.

For our final speaker of the day, we met with Emmanuel Nachshon at the MFA. He and Zananiri were a fascinating back-to-back experience, and it was certainly valuable for the participants to hear both sides endorse the two-state solution.

Our day ended with dinner, a fitting way to celebrate an extraordinary and eye opening day.

Blog 2

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

This morning we departed Tel Aviv and drove north, to Nahariya, to visit the Galilee Medical Center. It was incredible to learn more about the time, resources, and care that Israeli hospitals have put into caring for Syrians, and to see with our own eyes the reinforced underground wards for use in the event of rocket barrages from the north.

From the hospital, we drove to the Technion, in Haifa, pausing to take in the beauty of the Baha’i Temple and panoramic view of the seaport along the way. We enjoyed a beautiful, delicious, and mentally stimulating lunch with Technion President Peretz Lavie, along with a presentation about the Technion’s successful efforts to commercialize their research. The presidents were familiar with the Cornell-Technion tech initiative (a similar AJC Project Interchange delegation introduced President Lavie and then-Cornell President David Skorton), and Lavie mentioned that Skorton came to Israel with AJC, which clearly impressed our group.

University presidents meeting with Technion President Lavie

University presidents meeting with Technion President Lavie

Next, we arrived at the University of Haifa, where we heard from the president, Ron Robin, and several members of his administration. The presidents were glad to meet with Robin who, until recently, was a vice provost at NYU, and we also heard a fascinating presentation on the digital future of the study of the humanities.

Finally, we sat down to dinner in Sarona, joined by three leaders in the National Union of Israeli Students. We enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with the bright and eloquent youngsters, and everyone at the tables learned a great deal from one another—both about higher education in the U.S. and Israel, and about society more generally.

I should add that at each college and university we have visited—Ono, Shenkar, Bar Ilan, Technion, Haifa—you can see the gears turning in our presidents heads, as they contemplate ways to partner productively with these Israeli institutions. Our participants clearly want to make it happen!

An Ethiopian Israeli graduate in law speaks about his experience at Ono College

An Ethiopian Israeli graduate in law speaks about his experience at Ono College

Blog Post - Day 1

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Today began, as the best days in Israel always do, with a scrumptious breakfast at our lovely hotel. After eating our fill in the seaside dining room, our group moved upstairs to hear from Professor Yossi Shain, from the political science department at TAU, and a member of Israel’s National Council for Academic Affairs. He provided an excellent overview of the different sectors in Israeli society, a taste of the country’s politics, and a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at the decision-making process in the higher ed institutions.

This lecture, coupled with a truly sterling briefing from AJC Jerusalem Director Lt. Col. (res.) Avital Leibovich about Israel’s relations with its neighbors, provided an excellent foundation of knowledge upon which to build.

After departing the hotel, we enjoyed a brief tour of Jaffa as we made our way to our next session, which took place at a cultural house in Jaffa’s old city. We heard from the founders of that institution over lunch, and then took in a panel of three impressive social entrepreneurs. The presidents were certainly familiar with Israel’s reputation as a high-tech start-up nation. This session, which highlighted projects in the fields of urban reclamation, assistive technologies, and inclusion, exposed them to the social entrepreneurship that thrives in Israel’s start-up culture.

Social entrepreneur Abass Abass who founded an organization to support disability rights and empowerment within Arab Israeli society briefs the University Presidents delegation

Social entrepreneur Abass Abass who founded an organization to support disability rights and empowerment within Arab Israeli society briefs the University Presidents delegation

Before departing Jaffa, we heard from Galit Roichman, an Israel screenwriter who, using clips from Israeli television shows, served as our own personal “Netflix”, providing an enthralling window onto Israeli society.

After a short break, we ended our day at Bar Ilan University, where we were hosted by President Arie Zaban. President Zaban and many members of his administration spoke with our group about what makes Bar Ilan unique, and extolled the benefits of American-Israel academic partnerships. Our participants engaged eagerly!

We’re off to bed now, after a very full day (with very full stomachs), looking forward to another excellent day tomorrow!

Blog Post 3 - EU Diplomats and Members of the European Parliament

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Tuesday turned out to be the most intense day yet of the program. Leaving at 7 AM, the group proceeded by helicopter to Mount Bental in the Golan Heights for a briefing with Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel about the complex situation just across the northern border. Nitzan explained to the group how Iran was establishing a foothold in Syria, bringing Shiite militias from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other places to replace the ethnically-cleansed Sunni population and to thus cement the Iranian/Shiite bridge from Iran and across Syria all the way to Lebanon. It is a regional and global challenge the West can no longer ignore and needs to push back, he said.

From there, a mere ten minute helicopter flight brought the delegation to Mount Adir on the Lebanese border. Clearly visible from the viewpoint were the Lebanese villages just across the border, “all controlled by Hezbollah, Hezbollah outposts, really,” as Nitzan said. With some 120,000 missiles pointed at Israel and hidden among the civilian population, in those same villages the participants could so clearly see in front of them, it is only a question of time when the next confrontation would start, Nitzan said. Given Hezbollah’s much more devastating firepower, the destruction on both sides would be so much more severe in the next confrontation than in previous wars. Europe could do its part in trying to prevent this next confrontation by taking a tougher line against the terror group.

The next stop was in Nein, an Arab Israeli village, where the group was hosted by Na’el Zoabi, a local elementary school principal. Together with other community leaders, the group broke bread in his home and listened to his commitments and those of his colleagues, who all spoke of coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel and their plans to establish a new party to run in the next Knesset elections, with the prime goal to strive for between relations between the communities. The participants were excited to see such civil engagement among elements of the Muslim community.

Landing back in Jerusalem, there was no time to rest as Col. (res.) Miri Eisen, former International Media Advisor to the Prime Minister, immediately took the group on a geopolitical tour of the city. From a viewpoint just below the UN compound, overlooking the Old City and the Mount of Olives, Miri talked about the significance of the Holy Basin and how the line that the international community sees as the “natural” or rather untouchable division between East and West Jerusalem, was in reality just an armistice line negotiated between Israeli and Egyptian officers.

Deeply impressed by the varied and dramatic experiences and interactions they experienced first-hand, one participant declared that he had “completely changed his opinion of Israel since he arrived.”

Blog Post 2 - EU Diplomats and Members of the European Parliament

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Today, the group left Tel Aviv and headed straight to Ramallah to meet with Nabil Shaath, a foreign policy advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. One of the main topics of the discussion was whether the recent unity government between Hamas and Fatah would be more successful than previous failed attempts.

From Ramallah, the group proceeded to Jerusalem for discussions in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) The first meeting was with Roy Folkman from the governing Kulanu Party. Folkman explained that his party’s focus is social and economic reform, particularly breaking the monopoly powers in some of the Israeli sectors, as well as pushing for economic integration of two groups underrepresented in the Israeli labor market: Orthodox Jewish men and Arab women.

Next was a meeting with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid. He started his presentation with an overview of the false distinction between the so-called political and military wings of Hezbollah and the need to list the entire group as a terror organization.

Much of the rest of the discussion centered on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. A solid majority of Israel, including Lapid himself, supports a two state solution, the lawmaker told the group. But a precondition for solving the conflict is for the PA to take responsibility for state building instead of continuing to play the role role of victim.

After meetings in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the group headed to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. The intense and emotional visit left a deep impression on the participants. One delegate remarked how extraordinary it is that after such a horrific experience, the Jews had the strength to build the modern State of Israel and how profound the experience of the Holocaust is for the State’s ethos: to rely only on themselves. Others promised to come back with their children.

Ultimately, one delegate concluded, Israel is so much more than the conflict. The participant noted that it is so important to present the country’s many interesting aspects, from internal societal trends to economics and innovation.

Blog Post 1 - EU Diplomats and Members of the European Parliament

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

The seminar kicked off with an introduction to Israeli politics and society at the historical Sarona neighborhood by Amichai Magen, senior lecturer at the Herzliya Institute. Amichai’s tour d’horizon covered everything from Israel’s high tech expertise to its Arab minority and security challenges at its Northern border. Listening to a brief overview of Israel’s successes in improving the economic integration of its Arab community and its achievements in innovation and entrepreneurship, one participant noted that Israel does not get enough credit for these accomplishments in Europe and that Israel is “being treated unfairly.”

This set the stage for the following day’s first full day program, which was both intensive and emotional. AJC Jerusalem Director Avital Leibovich further elaborated on Israel’s security challenges, both in the south by Hamas controlling Gaza and in the North with Hezbollah in Lebanon but also in Syria now and Iranian troops in Syria. Participants were concerned to hear that both Hamas and especially Hezbollah may soon start another war. This was especially of concern given that Hezbollah’s much larger and more powerful arsenal of some 120,000 missiles means that the next war would be much more devastating for both sides.

Our participants appreciated the insights into the links between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and the threat that this represents for Israel. One participant commented that only now, after listening to our experts, he could finally understand why Israel is so deeply worried about Iran. The general perception in Europe is that the threat comes almost only from extreme Sunni movements. The participants acknowledged that Europeans underestimate the threat posed by the Iranian regime and how its blend of radical Shiite ideology also spreads terror and instability in the region and beyond.

After these two lectures, we proceeded to the Gaza Border, just a one hour drive from Tel Aviv. Kibbutz Nahal Oz resident Yael Raz Lachyani told participants about life for ordinary Israelis under the constant threat from Hamas and missile bombardment.

Participants were rather surprised about how near to the border people live and the dangers they face on a daily basis. They asked many questions to try to understand what keeps parents with children living such a dangerous life. In a very emotional and authentic way, Yael explained how important the attachment is to her land and to her roots, and that this is simply her home. And, she emphasized, what also keeps her in her home is the hope that one day there will be peace with the Palestinians, and life will be back the way it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s when there was no security fence and Gazans worked in Israel and Israelis shopped in Gaza. “When that day comes, I want to be there and show it to my children.”

One participant remarked that people like her who live in a Kibbutz that is the target of rockets are “national heroes.” Impressed with the resilience of the Kibbutz members, he underlined how important the message is they sent by not leaving their homes, namely that Hamas terror will not succeed.

After lunch, we continued our program with a discussion with Col. (res.) Grisham Yakubovich about the IDF’s challenges to guarantee the supply of all material and humanitarian supplies to Gaza, even as it is controlled by a terror organization and even during war time. Col. Yakubovich stressed how due to Hamas’s misappropriation of funds and the infighting between the Palestinian Authority under Abbas and Hamas, critical infrastructure in Gaza, such as water resources, sewage treatment and energy supply, have been neglected and could cause a serious crisis in Gaza in only a couple of years.

We came back to Tel Aviv tired after a long and emotional day, but an animated discussion with journalist Haviv Rettig Gur energized the group again. Haviv explained to us the situation of the very partisan press in Israel and that for foreigners to rely on only one publication will not give them a balanced picture of the country.

One of the MEPs said that it is totally unfair how Israel is treated in the European Parliament and in the European Commission.

Another MEP commented how MEPs rarely hear about Palestinian incitement and violence.

We ended this fascinating day with a night tour of Tel Aviv and a great dinner at the Tel Aviv harbor.

U.S. Mayors Day 4 Blog Post

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Who said you shouldn’t discuss religion and politics?

Certainly, no one affiliated with AJC Project Interchange, as our delegation continued their crash course in both. The day started with a tour of Bethlehem with a visit to the Church of the Nativity, as the delegation joined the large crowd of worshipers and pilgrims to this holy site.

Then it was off to Ramallah to learn about the mood in the Palestinian Street by noted Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki. Dr. Shikaki has conducted over 200 polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and gave a candid and thoughtful overview of Palestinian attitudes toward the peace process and use of violence as a political tool. The mayors, no strangers to the importance of public opinion and polling, peppered him with questions with knowledge that they had gained over the last few days.

They also met with Jamil Tarifi, former Minister for Civil Affairs at the Palestinian Authority. While certainly highly critical of the Israeli government, Tarifi had warm words to share about Yitzhak Rabin, a man who could be counted upon to live up to his word. All the mayors commented upon how important the visit to Ramallah was in terms of their understanding of the complexity of the issues, as well as their admiration for AJC Project Interchange in arranging to take them there.

We then returned to Jerusalem where the global became far more local with meetings with United Hatzalah, a volunteer emergency service unit, where Jews and Muslims volunteer side by side to save lives, and Major General Yoram Halevy, Commander of the Jerusalem Police. More than one mayor commented with great respect on the tremendous challenges of running a city where an act of terror can and has happened at any moment.

The day ended with a fascinating meeting with Israeli Peace Negotiator and perennial Project Interchange favorite Dr. Tal Becker. Dr. Becker took them through the perils of negotiating and the complexities in reaching peace between two peoples destined to share the same land.

The delegation then got some well-deserved rest as we prepare for tomorrow’s visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City. We can’t believe that the trip is almost over, but everyone has commented that this has been the experience of a lifetime.

U.S. Mayors Day 3 Blog Post

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

There is really no better way to appreciate how small Israel is than to travel by helicopter.

Our day began with a helicopter ride from Tel Aviv up north to Ziv Medical Center, which serves the population in the Galilee and Golan Heights. In 2011, Syrians wounded in the civil war began arriving at the border, which began the hospital’s incredible work of caring for injured Syrians despite Syria and Israel having no diplomatic relations. In addition to learning about the extraordinary work of the hospital, we met with a group of 5 young Syrian men (some civilian, some rebel fighters) who asked us to take their plea back to America: We still need help. It was a powerful experience for all of us.

After a wonderful Lebanese lunch in an Arab village, we then traveled to the overlook with Lebanon where we were joined by Brigadier General (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel who gave a sobering overview of Hezbollah and Lebanon. While he hopes that the people of Lebanon can be freed from the clutches of Hezbollah, he knows that it will not be easy or without cost.

We then boarded our helicopters and traveled to Jerusalem. To see Biblical places like Armageddon, the Sea of Galilee and Jericho from a helicopter is quite an experience, as is seeing the checkerboard of settlements and Arab villages in the West Bank. The complexity and close proximity is inescapable.

We then visited City Hall where we met with two members of the staff of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who described the complex demographics of Jerusalem and the challenges of serving such a diverse and complicated population. With fast growing populations of Arabs and Ultra Orthodox Jews, there are deep and multiple complexities. For the mayors, it was particularly interesting to learn how different the challenges are and yet how - at the end of the day - if a mayor can be effective and make peoples’ lives better, the people can learn to trust the mayor.

We concluded with a fascinating tour of the Western Wall tunnels and a visit to the Western Wall. Jerusalem is a special, holy city and to see it illuminated at night and bustling with activity was a wonderful way to end a long but productive day.

U.S. Mayors Day 2 Blog Post

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

“You’ll rest when you get home.” It’s a phrase we often tell Project Interchange seminar participants given the intense schedule, jam-packed with meetings with experts. Day 2 was a perfect example - it was a very long day!

Our second full day in Israel began with a trip to the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which lies just a few kilometers from Gaza. In Sderot, we met the city’s renowned Security Coordinator Kobi Harush. Kobi described the ongoing threats of rocket fire and tunnel digging from Hamas as well as the ongoing psychological impact on the residents of Sderot. When a rocket alarm sounds, residents in Sderot have one minute to seek shelter. It’s hard not to imagine yourself and your family and the fear, disruption and trauma that ongoing violence can cause. Despite his growing concerns that the next round of violence might not be far off, life continues and the resilient Israeli people can and do carry on.

We then traveled to the Sorek Desalination Plant, the largest in Israel, and saw how water is pumped 2 km from the sea into the plant and turned into usable water. Israel has made the desert bloom, and this technology has helped make that possible, while also eliminating any water shortage.

At lunch, we joined a delegation of mayors from across Israel, which gave our participants a chance to meet with more peers. As one participant noted, “Mayors love other mayors,” and that was evident in the lively conversation and easy connections.

After lunch, we visited the Barkan Industrial Zone in the city of Ariel. We toured a facility that makes halva (a candy made from tahini) and tahini (sesame paste) and baked goods and is notable for its workforce, which includes a cross section of all of Israel. Palestinian employees earn a very good wage (equal to that of their Israeli counterparts), and the city is proud to be a model for what coexistence based on mutual benefit can look like. The Mayor of Ariel, Eli Shaviro, joined us as well and shared his vision for the growth of his community.

Finally, after experiencing rush hour traffic, we had dinner with journalist Yoav Limor who gave a blunt (and valuable) overview of the challenges facing Israel and the role of leadership in solving the various problems. The mayors deeply appreciated his insights and forthright manner.

Tomorrow will be another fascinating day as we travel by helicopter to the northern border with Syria.

U.S. Mayors Day 1 Blog Post

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

“If you see something, say something. And do something.” Those words, uttered today by Col. Yechiel Soffer, the former head of Israel’s Defense Forces Home Front Command, are an appropriate shorthand summary of the first day of the AJC Project Interchange’s U.S. mayors’ seminar in Israel.

The mayors have certainly seen, said and done (and heard and eaten) a great deal during this first day in Tel Aviv. From an intensive morning of briefings about Israeli politics, society and overall strategic environment, the mayors hit the bustling city of Tel Aviv to learn about this hub of diversity, culture and innovation. At a lunch with Chen Ariely, Director of Israel’s leading LGBT organization, the mayors learned about the city’s efforts to promote a diverse culture and assure that all of its citizens feel welcome. There was also a frank discussion about the work that remains to be done with a particular focus on the challenges with both the ultra-orthodox and Muslim communities.

Israel is the start-up nation and the mayors are certainly interested in how to capture some of that innovation for their cities. From creating swifter first responders to how to build a better garbage truck, the afternoon consisted of a series of meetings aimed to give the mayors a variety of opportunities to both improve their own cities and partner with Israel. There were several discussions about how Israel fosters an environment of innovation and how the partnership between government and private interests can improve the lives of a city’s residents.

The evening ended with a dinner with legendary Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, currently serving in his 19th year in office. Mayor Huldai spoke of the city’s challenges, and also about its many accomplishments. Mayor Huldai spoke about education, housing costs, crime and other issues that every single mayor could understand.

Tomorrow we are off to Sderot, the West Bank, and lunch meeting with a dozen Israeli mayors. Already the mayors are understanding why some call Tel Aviv the city that never sleeps.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Interchange.