Campus Leaders- Blog 1

December 30th, 2016

Note: A delegation of Campus Leaders from Brown University is in Israel with Project Interchange. The delegation is accompanied by Seffi Kogen, Assistant Director, AJC Campus Affairs, and Rachel Craig, Senior Associate, AJC Project Interchange.

The AJC Project Interchange delegation of Brown University Student Leaders has arrived in Israel and what a time it is to be in Israel!

The eyes of the world are on this tiny corner of the globe, with the recent UN vote condemning Israeli settlement construction, followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech, which laid out the basis of U.S. support for Israel, and also reiterated condemnation of the current Israeli government’s settlement policies. We’d soon learn that these developments were on the minds of many of the speakers we were set to meet.

Our first full day began with a lecture at AJC’s Jerusalem office by Dr. Maoz Rosenthal, who provided a dense but terrific overview of 120 years of Zionist history, including that of the State of Israel…condensed into 1.5 hours! Like any good session, the students left with more questions than they had at the outset, and with significantly more knowledge! His concluding point stuck with many of the students: Israel today is pulled between two poles, one that privileges Jewish security above all else (and views the West Bank settlements as necessary to that security), which he suggested is typified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right party leader Naftali Bennett, and the other that Israel must maintain positive relationships with the international community (and so global condemnation of the settlements must be taken seriously). For this second pole, he suggested Ariel Sharon (z”l) and Tzipi Livni as avatars. Most Israelis, he suggested, fall somewhere in the persuadable middle.

Next up was Galit Roichman, a screenwriter and an incredibly talented educator, who wove a picture of Israeli society into the framework that Maoz had built just prior. Galit was our own personal Netflix, queuing up clip after clip of Israeli television—Traffic Light, A Touch Away, Srugim, Arab Labor, The Jews are Coming—to help us better understand the different groups that make up Israeli society. We learned about the divides between Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews, between religious and secular Jews, between Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs, and about the pushy and quarrelsome—but caring—nature of Israelis in general.

From there, we took a quick walk to Shuk Machne Yehuda—Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda Market—to see the bustling shops, and be overwhelmed (in the best way!) by the crowds, the sights, the smells, and the tastes. We were treated to falafel and bourekas by our wonderful guide, Yoram, who helped us understand some of the cultural significance of the market.

Next we met with former Director of the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, and Professor Yuval Shany. Yuval spoke to us about the strengths and weaknesses of Israel’s legal system, while Ami added the incredible perspective provided by his former position. Both men locate themselves on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum, and both warned about the direction Israel is heading, while nevertheless championing its democratic nature. Several students were particularly taken with this, noting that our speakers didn’t try to present their country as perfect, instead leaving it unvarnished, exposed to criticism, but ultimately asserting its positive impact on the world.

Wow—heavy stuff! For a lighter note, we turned our attention to Israel’s status as a start-up nation—and the burgeoning role Jerusalem is playing in that story. We heard from venture capitalist Hanan Brand who, with a team of other committed individuals by his side, has worked to build up the start-up scene, typically associated with Tel Aviv, in Israel’s capital. His Made in JLM organization helps support and accelerate innovative new ideas, and is launching Jerusalem into the high-tech conversation in a major way.

Finally, we concluded the day—our first full day in Israel—with Hanukkah candle lighting in a beautiful and moving event. Kehilat Zion, a liberal egalitarian synagogue in Jerusalem, and Tag Meir, a Jewish-Arab anti-racism coalition, were sponsoring the lighting, which featured beautiful music and speeches from Jews and Arabs. Their message for this Festival of Lights, which resonated deeply with the students, was that we each possess light within us, and we must use it to drive out the darkness in the world.

What a powerful message to have echoing in our heads on Friday morning when we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Over two and half hours in the heartrending museum, we heard stories of the lives lost, the lives saved, and the evil that rushes in to the world when good people do not act decisively to stop it. By the end we were all quite emotional, with a strong sense of the importance of Israel as a safe haven in the world.

Next up for the day: a trip down to Israel’s border with Gaza, followed by a visit to the city of Sderot, and then back to Jerusalem to welcome Shabbat!

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