The Enigma That is Israel

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At Golan Heights overlooking Syria, with political advisor Avi Melamed. Pictured (from left): Rep. Gerry Cassidy (D-Brockton), Rep Alan Silvia (D-Fall River), JCRC Board Member Alex Goldstein), Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Boston), Rep. Gerry Parisella (D-Beverly), Don Campbell, Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Avi Melamed, JCRC Staff Member Jeremy Burton, Rep. Evandro Carvalho (D-Boston), Rep. Rosalee Vincent (D, Revere), Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), Rep. Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough), Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton), Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), JCRC Staffer Leah Robbins – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

By State Rep Ken Gordon (D, Bedford)

Israel is many things to many people.  It is a country the size of New Jersey. It includes the city that is the most sacred on the planet to Jews and Christians, and the third most sacred city to Muslims (next to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia).  It is a Jewish state.  It is a parliamentary democracy. And it is a country with as many points of view as you find on a compass. It is a monument to complexity.

This week I returned from a study tour of Israel with a bi-partisan group of 13 Massachusetts legislators, hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC). We were presented with the story of Israel’s struggles through the lens of Jewish leaders, such as Knesset member Aliza Lavie, Brigadier Gen. Benzi Gruber and political advisor Avi Melamed. We heard from Palestinian insider Rami Nazzal, a resident of the Palestinian city of Ramallah and a journalist who contributes to the New York Times and Washington Post among other outlets. We heard from Arab educators such as Mohammad Darawshe and Ahmad Ansar.

I accepted JCRC’s invitation to tour Israel not so much to explore the prospect of peace in the Middle East, interesting though that was.  I went to Israel to explore the potential for our local high-tech and digital businesses to build bridges into the Israeli economy.  I certainly had that opportunity.  We met with Adi Barel, Tel Aviv’s director of economic development, and then took a tour of Cybereason, a cybersecurity firm and spoke with its Chief Visionary Officer, Yossi Naar.  Cybereason began in Tel Aviv and recently expanded to Boston. He explained why he chose Massachusetts over Silicon Valley, and when I asked him if he would have considered Burlington or Bedford before he chose a relocation site, he said he certainly would.   From here on, companies like Cybereason will hear from our district before making their move. Note: WBUR broadcast an interview with Cybereason on December 18, 2017 – Click this link to listen or read a transcript of the interview

We toured Alyn Hospital, an innovative facility that finds new ways to treat children with significant illnesses or injuries.   Among other innovations, we were shown a new, yet simple plastic wheelchair for children, that will reduce the cost of mobility for kids from poor nations from about $5,000 to $100.  It will change lives, and our Massachusetts health care developers like Lahey Health are in a position to help.  We engaged with MassChallenge, our state’s incubator program for startup high tech businesses.

Tel Aviv’s amenities, climate, and economy has made it one of the most sought-after places for high tech and healthcare companies to start.  However, the small market in a country with a population of 8 million is not enough to sustain the growth of the most successful enterprises.  That’s where partnerships with our Massachusetts businesses come in.  Successful relationships will bring new, vibrant business to our area, creating new jobs and opportunity for high tech workers and a market for our service industry such as restaurants.  It will boost our real estate market and other growth industries.  Everyone wins.

I am already working on putting together a delegation of our local interests to explore these opportunities. We cannot let this chance slip by.

Along with opening doors for our local economy, the trip was a chance to explore how people with different world views come together to form a community.  We met with an ultra-religious Jew of the Haredi sect, which forms isolated communities devoted to their religious practice and rarely interacts with their Palestinian or secular neighbors.  We also met with progressive Jews who create new forms of art, and who educate children in modern ways that their parents never envisioned.  We stopped at a preschool where Jewish and Arab children play together without conflict.  We saw three more integrated schools at all levels, right up through a Yeshiva, or Jewish university.  We even visited a residential program for at-risk Jewish youth from all over the world run by a recovering New Yorker.

We met with two young Israelis, Shaul Judelman a Jew from the state of Washington and Noor Adad, a Palestinian who once engaged in violence in protest of Israeli treatment. They formed a group called Roots in the West Bank to teach peace, cooperation, and tolerance between Muslim and Jewish people. From them, we realized there is a growing influence from a younger generation that Israelis from all backgrounds can begin to work together, from the bottom up, in an effort to eventually nudge the government to accept inclusiveness.

What did we learn?  We learned that like the United States, Israel is a melting pot of ideas and traditions.  It is a place where people live their lives under a threat of violence, but they do not let violence control them.  It is a country where traditional ethnic cultures thrive in places like Jerusalem and smaller communities, but in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa secularism, industry and urban challenges can be found. Most Jews and Palestinians we met did not welcome interference from President Trump, either because they believe we should leave well enough alone or they believe important negotiating leverage is being frittered away.  But this is not the opinion of all Israelis.

Like Americans, some agree with their government.  Some disagree.  Some see the neighborhoods that have sprung up in the West Bank as settlements.  Some see them as a natural part of Judea-Samaria.  Many living in Jerusalem shun the urban lifestyle of Tel Aviv and rarely, if ever, visit a city that is two hours away.  Indeed, the values of the Jews and others living in these two distinct cities are as different as Americans from Red States and Blue States, even if for different reasons.  Even the government, made up of coalitions of parties that may have very different agendas, cannot always be predictable.

Israel is a beautiful country, cut out of desert mountains on one side, and angling along the banks of the Mediterranean on the other.  Its beauty belies its conflict.  We traveled along the security fence – or border wall depending on our speaker – and realized walls don’t provide security, they provide nothing more than division.  The Israeli government knows that Palestinians scale the wall to get to work each day and does nothing to stop it because it needs the workers.  We walked along the border with Syria in the Golan Heights and heard of the conflict between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims while we listened to gunfire below. We learned that the threat from this conflict, fueled by the Russians, is the most significant issue affecting Middle East peace at this time.

Taking a study tour is not a vacation.  I learned that someday I would like to return to this beautiful place with my family so we can enjoy the beaches, spend more time in the Old City of Jerusalem, and visit the museums.  But that was not for this trip. This trip was to talk to national and city leaders, educators, facilitators, writers and those who are devoted to making Israel a better place.

I learned that Americans viewing from afar may tend to oversimplify the conflict and suggest easy fixes to complex problems. As JCRC board member Alex Goldstein explained, “you go to Israel with questions.  And if you are really listening, you come back from Israel with more questions.”

At a center called Roots, where we met Shaul Judelman and Noor Adad who are working to bring together young Arabs and Jews in one community. Shown here is me with colleagues (from left) Evandro Carvalho (D-Boston), David Muradian (R-Grafton) and Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen) – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

At Yemen Orde Youth Village, posing with Director Racheli Yaso-Ngatuo, an Ethiopian Jew who escaped through the Sudan with her family when she was 6 years old. Yemen Orde is a school for at-risk Jewish kids from around the world. Pictured (from left) Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Rep Rosalee Vincent (D-Revere), Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), Rep David Muradian (R-Grafton), Rep Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough), Rep. Alan Silvia (D-Fall River), Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), Rep. Jerry Parisella (D-Beverly), Rep. Evandro Carvalho (D-Boston), Racheli Yaso-Ngatuo, Don Campbell, JCRC Staff Member Jeremy Burton, Rep. Chyna Tyler (D-Boston), JCRC Board Member Leah Robbins, JCRC Board Member Alex Goldstein – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

At Golan heights with UN peacekeeping forces and Rep. Rosalee Vincent (D-Revere) – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

At Alyn Hospital with Danna Hochstein-Mann, Director of Alyn Novation. (From left): Rep. Rosalee Vincent (D-Revere); Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Boston), Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton),Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), JCRC Board Member Alex Goldstein, Rep. Jerry Parisella (D-Beverly), Rep. Gerry Cassidy (D-Brockton), Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Boston), Danna Hockstein-Mann, JCRC Staff Member Jeremy Burton, Rep. Alan Sylvia (D-Fall River), Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), Rep.Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Don Campbell, JCRC Board Member Leah Robbins, Rep. Evandro Carvalho (D-Boston), Rep. Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough) – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

At the Knesset with Knesset Member Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid Party). (From left): Rep. Evandro Carvalho (D-Boston), Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Boston), Rep. Rosalee Vincent (D-Revere), Rep. Chynah Tyler (D-Boston), Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton), Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), JCRC Staff Member Jeremy Burton, Alisa Lavie, Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), Rep. Alan Sylvia (D-Fall River), Rep. Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough), Rep. Jerry Cassidy (D-Brockton), Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Rep. Jerry Parisella (D-Beverly), JCRC Board Member Eli Cohn-Postell – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

Outside the Knesset with Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton) – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

Michael Assaraf, CEO of Vicarius, a Jerusalem Cyber Security company – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

 

At Haifa on the first night of Hanukkah. Before a peace Menorah with one light lit (plus the Shamash or helper candle), a Muslim crescent and a Christmas tree. With (from left) Rep. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen), Rep. David Muradian (R-Grafton), Rep. Rosalee Vincent (D-Revere), Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), Rep. Alan Sylvia (D-Fall River), Rep. Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough), Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop), Sen. Patrick O’Connor (R-Weymouth), Rep. Jerry Parisella (D-Beverly) and Rep. Jerry Cassidy (D-Brockton) – Courtesy image (c) 2017, all rights reserved – Click to view larger image

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