Maybe something positive will come out of the current crisis in Israel after all. Perhaps the arrival of many groups from communities all over the world will help further the understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews and lead to greater cooperation.
If the 150 Angelenos who took part in the seventh solidarity mission organized by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) Dec. 8-12 have anything to do with it, that's already happening. Led by Sharon Janks, a dynamic veteran of many Israel missions, and by John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the group did its best to visit many of L.A.'s Partnership 2000 projects and listened to a variety of perspectives on the situation, all with the idea that American Jews have the responsibility to carry Israel's message to the American public and can leave their imprint on Israeli society .
It's a message, the Angelenos say, that needs to cut both ways. At a briefing prior to setting off to L.A.'s twin city, Tel Aviv, Fishel pointed out that one goal of the visit would be to lend support to the projects emphasizing religious diversity and tolerance. He warned the L.A. visitors about the "great divide" within Israel and noted that "Judaism as it's practiced in the U.S. has not been on the agenda in Israel. "Israelis are missing a great deal if they're not exposed to our culture," Fishel added.
In Tel Aviv, the group was divided along denominational lines to visit schools involved in twinning relationships with their L.A. counterparts. The Conservative track visited one of Israel's most prestigious high schools, the Gymnasia Herzliya. Most U.S. high schools are not as well-equipped as Gymnasia Herzliya, with its state-of-the-art library, science wing and beautifully landscaped grounds. The group heard from well-dressed, articulate students involved in exchange programs with Calabasas High School, as well as members of the Young Entrepreneurs group who are running a fledgling business with Arab students from Jaffa.
L.A. mission participants asked about the experimental Tali Jewish Studies curriculum, which is funded by a three-year Federation grant. Liad, an affable 12th-grader, answered that he did take a Jewish studies class in 10th grade, but "most kids don't keep a lot of traditions and don't know a lot about it. I learned a lot about moral Judaism."
David Zisenwine, a professor of education at Tel Aviv University who serves as national chair of Tali, said the Tali's main purpose is to show that Orthodox Jews aren't the only ones who can teach Jewish texts. "Creeping Orthodoxy is a problem in Israel," he explained.
At a more informal discussion with Israeli students active in the L.A.-Tel Aviv Partnership who maintain regular contact over the Internet with Jewish high schoolers in California, the discussion turned political. A few of the L.A. visitors took issue with the profoundly secular views expressed by the students. "I think it's a very good idea to give up the Temple Mount," said Ido, a handsome, brown-eyed 10th-grader.
"Not for one second should we give it up," countered Yoav Peled, an L.A. visitor.
Meanwhile, the Orthodox group traveled to the Ironi Het high school near the Azrieli Center. Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky and Elazar Muskin, with the predominantly male Orthodox participants, listened to an explanation of the Yesodot program, which operates on seed money from Federation.
Yesodot was conceived in the wake of the Rabin assassination to advance education toward democracy in religious schools. The project provides in-service teacher training on the subjects of halacha and the rule of law, human rights and civil rights.
But by afternoon, the mission participants were getting tired. One mission leader expressed disappointment at the low-key response.
"There's nothing that's grabbed them yet," she said, complaining that a visit the day before to the embattled Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was a letdown. "I don't know what I expected, but it didn't do anything for me."
The next stop provided the emotional punch she was looking for. All three L.A. buses visited projects in the Arab neighborhood of Ajami in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv.
At the Toulouse Day Care Center for the Elderly, some 40 middle-aged and elderly chador-clad Arab women sat waiting for the group in the pleasantly appointed meeting room. A few men lined the walls fingering their prayer beads as the Orthodox L.A. group walked in.
The center is attached to a large, attractive newly built three-story old-age home funded by the Tel Aviv municipality to serve the Arab residents of Ajami.
Fishel introduced the L.A. visitors, explaining that they were there to listen to their concerns. Instead of a lecture, Gabi Abd, a native of Jaffa who is now a neighborhood social worker and actor, dressed up as an elderly Arab and delivered an entertaining monologue describing the history of Jaffa's Arab community. "Jews and Arabs have the same father, just a different mother," he notes. Abd described how some Arabs are waiting for the right of return to replace the Jews from Arab and European countries who moved into the area after the Arabs fled in 1948.
Ghnem Yakubi, a younger, English-speaking community activist, followed with a discussion. He explained Jaffa's demographics. There are 54,000 people in Jaffa, of whom 34,000 are Jews. In the Ajami neighborhood, only 5 percent are Jewish. Sixty-six percent of the population is under the age of 29, so education and jobs are major concerns.
The women who had been sitting with sullen looks on their lined, dark faces started to mumble amongst themselves. Then one started angrily yelling and gesticulating. According to the translation we received, she was bitterly complaining about the lack of decent housing and the fact that Jews are spreading out into the area, buying up land. "Is this true democracy?" she asked.
Yakubi took the opportunity to explain that the Angelenos needed to understand that Jaffa's violent outbreak last October was "100 percent tied to a civil rights movement." It had nothing to do with nationalism, he claimed. "What happened in Jerusalem was just a trigger which centers around civic issues," he asserted.
Several L.A. participants politely questioned his assumptions. The discussion heated up but remained respectful. As the group drove away on the bus, our guide Mark Reitkopp, a former American living on the secular kibbutz Elrom told us how difficult the meeting was for him.
"I really had to bite my tongue in there," he said. Because of Arab violence and the complete cessation of tourism, he exclaimed, "I'm worse off economically now than they are!"
The evening ended on a lighter note as Tzeirei Tel Aviv, an energetic and professional teenage song and dance troupe, provided the group's after-dinner entertainment. Jean Friedman, enthusiastic chair of the L.A.-Tel Aviv cultural exchange program, introduced the program and spent a few moments explaining the variety of cultural activities shared by the two cities. Politics intruded again as two members of the Theater Workshop of the Peres Center for Peace performed a couple of skits on Arab-Jewish coexistence.
Those who came on the mission from L.A. generally gave the tour top marks. Many had not visited Israel for a number of years and appreciated the opportunity for a whirlwind trip at a reasonable price. "I came because it was a convenient time to get away from business," said Frank Ponder, who was last in Israel 16 years ago.
The standard visits to the Kotel and an air force base and the opportunity to listen to Israeli politicians from across the spectrum gave them something with which to inform their discussions about Israel back home. The important tourism industry will benefit greatly from the visit, as will the growing cultural ties between L.A. and Tel Aviv. But for many in the group, the greatest impact has been the outward display of solidarity that the trip represents.
"Only after I came to Israel did I realize how important it is to be here," wrote Metuka Benjamin, Stephen S. Wise Temple education director, on the mission Web site ( www. realitytoday.com/tour ). "Every group we met thanked us for coming here. I have never felt this before. My plans are to return to Los Angeles and work hard to encourage people and youngsters to come to Israel."