Are We a Choosing People?

REBECCA BARDACH, Hand in Hand director of resource development and strategy, delivered the following speech Nov. 10 at General Assembly 2013, the annual conference of Jewish Federations of the United States and Canada. The conference was held this year in Jerusalem and attended by more than 2,000 people. In her presentation, Rebecca shares the personal history and experiences motivating her work with Hand in Hand. 

I am very much the product of the educational and socializing frameworks in which I grew up. Jewish day school. Jewish-Zionist summer camps. Gap year in Israel, to name a few.

We live life moment to moment, action to action. But when you step back and examine your life, you can identify the particular stepping stones which form your path. And I find that guiding me at every major decision point I have faced are the values, the stories, the heroes, the hopes of the Jewish-Zionist narrative.

I was on Young Judaea’s year-course program in Israel in 1990-91, the year of the Iraq Gulf War. When kids and their families had to decide if they would stay or leave, I chose to stay. ANACHNU KAN. WE ARE HERE. That was the slogan of the solidarity march that took place in Jerusalem at the beginning of our year. It captured succinctly what I had always been taught: personal responsibility and communal responsibility are inter-connected. The communal good depends on each individual’s actions and contributions. I wanted to be here and take part in what my people were experiencing.

During that year I also seriously considered joining the Israeli army. Why should my Israeli peers sacrifice in serving the country whose interests served the Jewish people, while those of us who were not born here could engage in our own personal pursuits of study, work, fun? I ultimately decided not to join the army only because so many people told me that as a woman my options would be extremely limited. Buried beneath the surface of this, buried more deeply than I would have been able to consciously admit at the time, was the courageous example of the likes of Hannah Senesh, whose diary I had read, whose songs I sang, whose military heroism I had absorbed and admired. But this was no longer a relevant option.

So I returned home and started my studies.

The war in Bosnia began while I was in college. Sitting with my bagels and coffee and New York Times over study breaks, I read about concentration camps and what people were calling ethnic cleansing. Didn’t we teach ourselves NEVER AGAIN? Doesn’t that mean anything? It was different, but also had troubling similarities. But what could I possibly do as a 21-year-old? In the end I called my friend Max who had started a volunteer program helping Bosnian refugees in Hungary. Max, I want to join you. Come, she said. And so I bought a ticket and joined her, working at the camp for about two years.

When the war ended, people began to debate if they would return home or move to another country – Canada, Australia, America. As an American Jew I empathized with those who were about to become immigrants in a new country. But the choice to return and rebuild Bosnia reminded me of the Jews who had come to build the land of Israel, till the soil, build kibbutzim, risk their lives and certainly sacrifice their own personal comfort for the sake of fulfilling the Jewish people’s dream of a state and safe haven. Like an oleh rises up to Israel, these people too were choosing to rise to the occasion of rebuilding their homeland.

So it was my connection to Israel and Zionism that brought me to Bosnia to work with the return and reconstruction efforts. But during the time there one thing became very clear to me. To make a difference in Bosnia required years of hard work and dedication. This was not going to be achieved by aid workers riding the waves of foreign aid and donor interest. It demanded the sustained commitment of citizens who have the greatest investment in getting it right. If I wanted to be part of making a real difference it was not going to be in Bosnia.

I had always been close with the Israeli shlichim and tsofim who worked at summer camp, engaging in long, angst-ridden discussions about making aliyah. It was time to act on this. And it was time for me to engage in the various challenges and the conflict plaguing my own people, not that of another people.

And so I moved to Israel in 1998. For the next decade and a half I worked with international migration and development issues. Here, too, my Jewish lens strongly shaped my choices, giving clear guidance and meaning to the work I was doing. But over the past several years a number of things have begun to take place that I find deeply disturbing:

  • Mayors and members of parliament and rabbis paid by the state of Israel – with my taxes – make public statements against Africans, against migrants, against Arabs, against non-Jews: Don’t rent your homes to them; Don’t let them wander our streets; They must leave.
  • The ministry of education has been steadily cutting away at civic education in the schools, while bolstering the budgets of the religious school system.
  • Soccer fans of Jerusalem’s soccer team shout hateful slogans like, "Death to the Arabs."
  • Women are told to sit at the back of public buses, and their faces are eliminated from public spaces.

These are just a few examples of things that have been unfolding here. These things do not represent the kind of society that I, and I think many others, want Israel to be. 

At a certain point I realized I can’t just sit here and read the papers and bemoan this. I have to do something about it.

The first turning point came some four years ago. My husband and I have three kids and we had to make the decision about where to start sending our oldest child to school. It is important to understand that the school system is tracked in Israel – with a Hebrew language and Arabic language track, and within the Hebrew language track a secular and religious track. On the one hand this reflects the major social groups in Israel. It respects their differences and communal preferences. On the other hand it also, de facto, perpetuates these differences. There is no framework where kids come together; where they learn about each other, to understand the differences between each other, to identify common ground, to create common ground.

Today’s students become tomorrow’s citizens. What happens when children grow up rooted only in their community, and without any opportunity to interact with others, to be challenged by and appreciative of diversity, to learn about or learn from others? At the heart of the decision of school choice is the question: what kind of socializing influence and values do we want for our children? What kind of person and what kind of citizen do we want our children to become?

For us one obvious choice was perhaps Tali or maybe Keshet, progressive Jewish schools that were the closest to the Jewish day schools both of us grew up in. That felt familiar, homey, natural. But even before we had children, we had always considered the possibility of a Jewish-Arab kindergarten, which we knew existed at the YMCA downtown. Now that we had real children and real decisions to make, it turned out that there was another choice to consider: Yad B’Yad, Hand in Hand, a bilingual Jewish-Arab school going from K to 12th grade.

We deliberated, but deep inside I knew that for me, there was no debate. We decided to start at Hand in Hand, and are now in our third year as parents with two of our children there. It’s a school where Jews and Arabs study together. They learn both Hebrew and Arabic in a bilingual framework. They learn about and observe each other’s holidays. They learn to appreciate and celebrate their own cultural traditions and that of one another. They learn about each other’s histories. They learn to examine things from different perspectives, to ask questions, to discuss, to listen. They learn to debate and to disagree, and how to continue in this inclusive framework.

This has been an enormously rewarding experience. But it is not always easy. It requires constant engagement, and there are challenges. Is it not a difficult path to impose on children growing up in a divided society?

I’ll answer this through a story. One day, about four years ago, I was dropping off my middle son at his daycare. The 4-year-old brother of one of the other kids was waiting for his mother at the bottom of the stairs. As I walked in he was holding his hands like a gun and playing a shoot-em-up game. As his mother came down the stairs he cried out, “אמא†אמא¨†אמא†אמא¨†הרגתי†ערבים†.” Mommy, I killed Arabs.

Now I know that a lot of kids play this type of game, on both sides. The question is how do we as parents, as educators, as citizens respond? What was her response? “Come on kiddo, we have to go, we’re late.” She continued down the stairs, took his hand and walked away. The fear and hatred between Jews and Arabs that was implicit in this game were such a given that she did not even bother responding to it.

For this one anecdote, there are dozens more from my own experience, from friends and from colleagues that show fear, hatred, an inability to see the perspective of the other side, indifference. Despair of anything different is pervasive - it is explicit – and, almost more deeply troubling for being less visible, it is far too often implicit.

Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab. They hold the same ID card and passport I do. Arabic is an official state language just as Hebrew is. Arabs pay taxes. They vote. I don’t want my children to grow up hating others because they are not like them, or because they are not-Jewish. I don’t want them hating Arabs just because they are Arab. And I am not alone in this feeling.

I decided to begin working at the Hand in Hand organization about a year and a half ago. It’s easy to criticize others. It’s harder to try to make things work the way you think they ought to be. I joined Hand in Hand at a time of expansion, as we begin to grow our network of bilingual schools. We had three school when I joined. Now we have five, and this launches a decade-long path of expanding the network to 10-15 schools, each surrounded by an active adult community engaged in joint Jewish Arab activity –from sports and culture and excursions, to study groups and dialogue groups and responding to some of the negative things taking place in society around us.

Hand in Hand is building a civic structure engaged in the questions and practices of inclusion, of pluralism. What we are doing translates to all the societal divisions we face in Israel.

Just as the Jewish and Zionist narrative has offered me guidance in my previous choices, it offers me clear guidance now. 
Are we the chosen people?
To me the question is: Are we a choosing people?

At every point along the way, we can choose what kind of society this is, what kind of people we are, which traditions we will espouse, debate or reject. I want my children to see that we have communal responsibility, and that within that that we each have personal responsibility. Don’t give in to despair. Don’t let others decide who I am. Act in accordance with what you believe.

“To save a single soul is as though you have saved the world." Is the converse not true also? Act – and take action - as though your deeds affect the entire world. We need to have the courage to be proud of who we are and to always engage in building a better society, and a better people. Isn’t that what the Zionist dream is about?

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