Recently, a Jewish friend posted on Facebook that he struggled with his opinion of Israel. His mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany who participated in the State of Israel’s establishment. His adult children support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) because they believe Israel is violating human rights in the Palestinian territories. I commented that as a progressive Jew, I believe that engagement, not disengagement, is a more effective protest of objectionable Israeli policies. This conversation ended with the other person stating, “If you support human rights, you have to boycott Israel.”
I do support human rights in Israel and elsewhere, but I believe the best way to advocate is to support local, grassroots organizations fighting for them.
Last month, in my role as a cabinet member of the Global Connections division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ, I spent a week in Israel engaging with NGO partners, programs, and people who are working to create a shared society in Israel.
During my “listening tour,” I spent a day in the Bedouin city of Segev Shalom. I met several young Bedouin women who are working with a youth movement that includes Jews and Arabs. In spite of educational segregation, governmental inaction, cultural traditions, and lack of opportunity, there are young Bedouins who are choosing national service and learning Hebrew and English to ensure their future in Israeli society.
I met young Bedouin entrepreneurs who were working with corporate mentors to create business opportunities. I met leaders of an NGO focusing on workplace integration who made the case for hiring educated Arab Israelis. I met the leaders of an educational enrichment program for Bedouin teens to improve their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and mainstream them into Israeli universities.
I sat in a room with Jewish and Arab first graders learning in Hebrew and Arabic at a bilingual school in Beersheva. I consulted with several federation partner programs in Jerusalem who are working toward pluralism and Jewish renewal. I visited a beit midrash in Abu Ghosh working for shared society through deep engagement, shared learning, and bond-building between Jews, Arabs, and Druze.
These organizations need progressive allies to achieve their goals. If we boycott or sanction Israel to punish for the words and actions of a right-wing government or the extremist actions of religious nationalists in the Palestinian territories, these grassroots efforts will suffer. We have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of real people, to be allies with organizations and leaders who share (and work toward) our values. I strongly encourage deep engagement and investment in these efforts.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ invests over $700,000 in shared society initiatives that include Jewish pluralism, Ethiopian-Israeli integration, Druze women’s empowerment, Bedouin education, Arab/Jewish youth movements, bilingual schools, and a partnership with impact investors such as the Social Venture Fund. We fund flagship programs that have a national focus, including advocacy and promoting a pluralistic shared society in Israel. We strive to ensure that Israel is a Jewish homeland with Jewish values (including equality for minorities) that Jews of all affiliations, including secular, can be proud of.
I am the chair of the sub-committee for Arab-Israeli initiatives. We invest in programs for Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise 20 percent of the population. After my visit to our partnership programs and learning about the diversity and challenges on the ground, I am extremely proud of the role our federation plays in the future of Israel. Our Shared Society platform committee and Jewish Pluralism subcommittee received an overwhelming response to our annual request for proposals. Our Arab-Israeli subcommittee is considering an increasing number of proposals from worthy organizations. This is a challenging funding cycle, but a good problem to have. It’s the best problem; this gives me hope for the future of Israel.
I will proudly support the Israel I know and love, the Israel that aspires to make all Jews proud, even the ones who don’t believe it’s possible. I encourage progressive American Jews to visit the country and support these efforts with me. Visit the Bedouin city of Segev Shalom. Visit the Druze city of Hurfeish. Eat hummus in Abu Ghosh. Have Shabbat dinner with an Orthodox family in Jerusalem. Visit a mixed city, like Acco or Haifa. And of course, visit all of the Old City, including the Temple Mount and all of its quarters. Have pomegranate juice in the Muslim Quarter. Have tea with the owner of a rug shop. Talk to people. And listen.
Shema Israel. All of Israel.
Julia Malaga is a Jewish communal professional who lives with her family in Randolph. She is the proud parent of a former Diller Teen and a past participant in the Arthur Borinsky Young Leadership Program and the Peoplehood Project.