Blog Day 4

December 8th, 2016

Note: A delegation of University Provosts and Deans is in Israel with AJC Project Interchange. The delegation is accompanied by Melanie Maron Pell, Director, AJC Director of Regional Engagement.

Day 4

Any day that begins with a helicopter ride is bound to be a good day. We boarded two helicopters in perfect weather at the Sde Dov helipad and flew south along the sea past Ashdod and Ashkelon and landed near the village of Netiv Ha’Asarah. Along the way, we saw the continuing development south from Tel Aviv as agricultural land is developed for housing and commercial real estate. We also saw Israel’s solar energy at work and learned how the discovery of natural gas is making the operation of desalination plants much more economical. Thanks to Israel’s innovation in desalination, water is readily available and even waste water is processed and used to irrigate potato and carrot farms.

Netiv Ha’Asarah is a beautiful village. We were met by chirping birds, the scent of flowers in the gentle breeze, and a warm hostess named Tzameret Zamir who invited us into her home and ceramic studio. The setting seems idyllic until one looks past her porch and sees the security barrier just a few hundred yards away and then notices the rocket shells on her porch that she has decorated with ceramics. Just beyond the barrier is Gaza City, a densely packed metropolis of 1.5 million people (and counting). In peaceful times, before the erection of the barrier, Palestinians worked in the village, and villagers shopped and dined in Gaza. Today, there is virtually no contact between the two.

Tzameret described her love of the land and of her village, the place where she raised four children. Her spirit and countenance exuded openness and gentleness, and she repeatedly described herself as a “simple woman” who just wanted to raise happy children. She then described the trauma of living on the border during the various military operations over the years. She described the terror of the children - including her own - when the sirens went off and rockets were flying as they waited at their bus stop. She said that one particularly violent night, her neighbors’ home was hit by a rocket. She and her family piled into their car and drove away to her parents. She was so traumatized that she could not speak - she could not utter a sound - for a week.

As an artist, she felt compelled to create and she described working with soft clay as almost meditative. She began creating flowers and butterflies - things of beauty - and then decided to undertake a bold new project. She painted a giant colorful mural on the security barrier that said “Path to Peace” in Hebrew and Arabic. She then began to glue little tiles to the mural. Now the tiles are made by adults and kids with special needs who she has taught, and visitors are invited to choose a tile, write a note of hope on it, and glue it to the mural.

On our way to the wall, we stopped to see a bomb shelter, which we stood in and tried to imagine the fear of not knowing where your child or spouse was as you huddled in the shelter. It was a powerful experience with a very special person, and it was an honor to leave our mark - our tiles - on this symbol of hope in this small village.

From there we boarded our helicopters again and flew north and east to Jerusalem. We saw the topography change and got a sense of just how small Israel is and how close Israel and her Palestinian neighbors truly are.

Our entry to Jerusalem began at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Our guide noted that it is a memorial, not a museum, which the participants noted at the end was clearly correct. No matter how many times one has visited Yad Vashem, the experience is powerful and can be overwhelming. The magnitude of loss is profound - each of the six million souls lost was an individual with potential, with aspirations, with a story. We emerged from the memorial as all visitors do - out of the darkness and into the State of Israel.

One participant said that he thought the morning at the security barrier would be hard to top in terms of emotional impact but that Yad Vashem was extraordinary. Another participant said that he saw reflected in Yad Vashem the 2000 year-old struggle of the Jewish people around the world and that it is a reminder to stay cautious and never get complacent. The experience was profound.

Following Yad Vashem, we turned again toward contemporary Israel with a visit to Brainsway, a company that has created the world’s first method of non- invasive, non-systemic, non-surgical deep brain stimulation, which is being used to treat everything from addiction to depression to PTSD to Parkinson’s. It’s an exciting new technology, and participants discussed possible research collaboration opportunities with the VP of Research and Development.

We ended our day with a guided tour of the Western Wall tunnels, which tell the 2000 year-old story of that fascinating piece of real estate. The feats of engineering are astounding, and the sacredness of the place is almost jarring. Suddenly, we are surrounded by deeply religious people of all faiths, and while it may feel unfamiliar, it invokes a somber respect.

It was another full day, and we are all looking forward to tomorrow when we will visit Hebrew University in the morning and then go to Ramallah for a series of meetings with Palestinian leaders.

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