December 19th, 2011
Editors Note: Itai Tsur, AJC’s Assistant Director of the Atlanta Regional Office is currently in Israel this week with a delegation of elected officials from Georgia. He is blogging the experience for us here.
Day 5 (December 15)
A Briefing with “the Pope’s Rabbi.” Today, our first full day in Jerusalem, we had the great fortune to meet with Chief Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs (who’s close ties with the Vatican has earned him the aforementioned nickname), to discuss interfaith relations in Israel. Rabbi Rosen explained the significance of Jerusalem. Although home to religious shrines for the three major world religions, only Christianity was actually born there. For a variety of historic and religious reason, however, observant Jews face Jerusalem three times a day while praying; it is as though all prayers must get routed through Jerusalem to get to “heaven.”
Rabbi Rosen also noted that Israel is the third power to control the state that recognizes all of its religions and protects holy places, as stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We discussed Israel’s continuation of the Ottoman tradition of deferring all matters of membership status, community and family law to each faith’s own religious courts. This approach works well for all faiths except Judaism. As a result, ironically, there is religious freedom and pluralism for all of Israel’s citizens except Jews, who are limited only to Orthodox options for membership status, community and family law. Rabbi Rosen concluded with a fascinating discussion of the ultra-Orthodox movements, and more recently, their entry into Israel’s government.
A Visit to (Another) Foreign Land. One of the things differentiating Project Interchange from other educational seminars in Israel is that it tries to expose participants to a wide array of voices about Israel, reflecting its heterogeneous and democratic character. The goal is to help participants form opinions about Israel based on fact, not the misrepresentations and vitriol often used to describe Israel (often by people who have never been there). So, we hopped on the bus and headed to Ramallah, the capital city of the Palestinian Authority, to hear directly from Palestinians.
Within 15 minutes, we were out of East Jerusalem, past the border checkpoint, around a roundabout, and inside the Palestinian Authority. This marked my first visit into areas under Palestinian control since the early 1980s, when I was a kid living in Israel. That was before either intifada and before the Oslo Accords; a time when one could freely drive between Israeli and Arab towns now part of the Palestinian Authority (for example, Bethlehem) with no border crossings, no major distinctions, and no significant concern.
We reached the outskirts of Ramallah, which reminded me of every Israeli-Arab town I have ever visited, except that there are no signs in Hebrew. Our first stop, the City of Rawabi, marks a significant change in the growth and development of a future Palestinian state living in peace (hopefully) with Israel. Billed as “the first Palestinian planned city,” Rawabi looks to be a beautiful mixed-use development, as we would call it in the States, built along the hills outside of Ramallah and equidistant between Jerusalem and Shechem (Nablus).
The presentation by Amir Dajani, Rawabi’s Donor Participation Coordinator, and Bashar Masri, one of the chief financiers for the development, was impressive. They explained how the development will allow residents to live, work and play in a vast complex, creating relatively affordable housing options for Ramallah’s middle class. During a discussion of the levels of municipal governance planned for Rawabi, State Representative Rashad Taylor suggested they consider problems caused by the added governance of neighborhood associations. In turn, Mr. Masri seemed very interested in hearing about “best practices and best problems” in metro Atlanta’s experience of legislating its own growth as one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.
After viewing a scale model of Rawabi and taking a bus tour of the construction site, we headed to downtown Ramallah to meet with Dr. Khalil Shikaki, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. What was striking about downtown Ramallah (in contrast to the outskirts of town) was the amount of new construction. We saw beautiful high rises and other signs of modern development that would not have seemed possible ten years ago. The western-style materialism apparent throughout the city was a sign that the economy is improving. One participant noted that he had expected to see blight, abject poverty and other trappings of a refugee camp - not a Pizza Hut/KFC with an Audi SUV parked in front of it.
Our meeting with Dr. Shikaki was fascinating. He discussed poling results for a variety of topics and trends in the views of the Palestinian people. According to his research, the majority of Palestinians favor a two-state solution, but there are potentially worrying trends, especially if Egypt becomes a conservative state governed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Henry County Chairman BJ Mathis inquired about opportunities for Palestinian and Israeli children to interact, perhaps in a camp or other program. Dr. Shikaki expressed his belief that all such interactions, especially with youngsters, could only serve to improve the attitudes of both sides.
Back to Jerusalem. On the way out, we saw more signs of growth happening in Ramallah. The trip back was surprisingly free of delays; just like that, we were back in Jerusalem for a meeting with Paul Hirschson, Deputy Spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He gave an excellent presentation at the new Foreign Ministry building about the significance of the relationship between the United States and Israel.
Unexpected Perspectives. At the hotel, we had our final meeting of the day with Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab-Israeli journalist specializing in Palestinian Affairs who works for, among others, the Jerusalem Post and NBC news. Mr. Toameh described his extraordinary journalism career: he began working for the PLO’s primary news publication, but subsequently began covering Palestinian affairs for the Jerusalem Post when it became too dangerous for Israeli journalists to work in the Palestinian territories during the second intifada.
When asked why an Arab-Israeli and former associate of the media arm of the PLO would agree to work for an Israeli newspaper catering to Jewish Israelis, Mr. Toameh’s response was simple: “In order to be a journalist.” He lamented the fact that there is nothing resembling free press in either the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control or Gaza under Hamas control. “I find it sad and ironic that as an Arab Muslim, I have to come work for a Jewish newspaper in order to engage in real journalism,” he said.
Mr. Toameh also opined on how much better things were before “peace.” Specifically, he said that the Oslo Accords and weapons from the West pouring into the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority, with no accountability, led to widespread corruption and ultimately the second intifada and Hamas’ rise. He had tried to warn others that Arafat was up to no good, but the international media labeled him a turncoat and turned a blind eye until it was too late. He noted that Arafat’s reputation amongst Palestinians diminishes considerably year after year, as more Palestinians are realizing that he led his people to one disaster after the next. On the most recent anniversary commemoration of Arafat’s death, an event which once drew out thousands, only 300 participants came out.
We also discussed present-day issues, such as the difficulties of drawing the border directly on the 1967 lines because of the emergence of Israeli and Palestinian towns along that route. When asked about prospects for peace, Mr. Toameh was rather pessimistic in the near term, noting that, at least in its local/Arabic communications, Hamas has not changed its tune one bit about its desire to rid Israel of Jews. He also doubts that the Palestinian Authority has the ability to reach any sort of negotiated resolution in light of the fact that it has told the Palestinians that getting back anything short of 100% of the pre-1967 armistice lines would be tantamount to treason. That said, Mr. Toameh maintains hope for the long-term peace and cited the fact that in 20 years there has been a sea change in the Israeli approach whereas once it was taboo to discuss a Palestinian State, now all but a fringe in Israeli society have accepted its inevitability.
The fascinating meeting left some delegates with a cognitive dissonance; how could an Arab Muslim, even if he is an Israeli citizen, think and say such things? For Mr. Toameh, however, recognizing the absolute failure of leadership that has plagued his people is a self-evident truth to anyone with the freedom to speak up.
Our full day was capped by a night of well-deserved free time in Jerusalem. We are excited about heading into the Old City, among other places, tomorrow.