Duke University Alumni Magazine



ecently, sitting with some friends, I was asked, "So what is it about Israel that you do like?" I had just spent the last ninety minutes with these friends discussing my past three years living in Israel, the politics of the country, its people, and its culture. I replied, "Do you mean to say that after all this time, you get the impression that I don't like Israel?" "Well, yes," they responded.

What could I say? How could I sum up in a few words the experiences and feelings I have had in nearly twenty years of traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Israel? I've lived in Israel more than a quarter of that time. I love the country, and its people. After all, I completed a Ph.D. in Hebrew and, two and a half years ago, I became an Israeli citizen.

I found my Israel encounters challenging me every day and often in conflicting directions. But then, Israel is a country of contradictions.

From 1996 to 1998, I worked at the Jerusalem Foundation, a nonprofit agency raising funds for social, educational, cultural, and welfare projects benefiting both Jewish and Arab citizens of the city of Jerusalem. In 1998, the foundation secured pledges totaling $33 million. As coordinator of educational and community projects, I worked on a daily basis with Jewish (religious and secular) and Arab schools and community centers.

Jerusalem, like any world-class city, is not homogenous, and it is very poor--the second-poorest city in Israel. With the ultra-religious Jewish community and the Arab sector comprising a significant percentage of the city's population, many residents are unemployed or working for minimal wages. Yet, as the country's capital, home to the prestigious Hebrew University, and a popular tourist destination, the city has visible middle and upper classes.

My job was to help these communities raise funds by identifying social and educational projects attractive to potential individual and corporate donors. Sometimes the needs were universal--after-school learning centers for both Jewish and Arab students; other times they were unique--the introduction of public services into a poor Arab neighborhood. Sometimes the need was more urgent for one group than the other. There are tens of senior-citizen centers in the Jewish sector of the city, but no more than three in the Arab sector. With the city's Arab population at more than a third of that of the Jewish population, the shortage is at crisis level.

In the Jewish sector, there are serious social problems: domestic violence, drugs, child abuse. Working with Jerusalem's public schools, I often thought that Americans would never tolerate such a crowded, run-down environment for their children. Yet, other students enjoy state-of-the-art computer laboratories, television studios, and advanced science equipment.

Israel is undergoing great domestic changes. Political and religious strife are polarizing the people. A major part of the work of the Jerusalem Foundation centers on bridging social gaps, in particular between the religious and the secular and between Jews and Arabs. Dozens if not hundreds of organizations in the country are spending countless hours and dollars in an attempt to bring some domestic peace.

The chasm between the religious and secular was highlighted when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, at the hands of a religious zealot. More recently, on the eve of Israel's fiftieth anniversary, the rift deepened even further. Among the performances scheduled at the national celebrations was the dance piece "Who Knows One" (based on a popular Passover tune) by the acclaimed Bat Sheva Dance Company. Only days before the performance, the minister of education, culture, and sport, whose office was in charge of the event, called for the exclusion of the Bat Sheva company from the celebrations because its work includes dancers disrobing. Secular Israelis saw the attack on Bat Sheva as censorship at the highest level, putting into question Israel's future as a democratic society that celebrates individual freedoms.

The quest for cultural freedom in Israel took an unusual turn last spring. In the annual European Song Festival, viewed live on television by tens of millions, Israel's pop singer Dana International narrowly beat out the United Kingdom's and Malta's entries with her song "Diva." Dana International is a transsexual. The religious cried that Dana International (who was chosen to represent Israel by a government-appointed committee) was a disgrace to the country. Her live performance and the subsequent contest voting received the highest television ratings in the country's history, and secular Israelis, including the growing gay and lesbian community, celebrated by jamming Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv to celebrate her victory.

At the Jerusalem Foundation, we viewed such incidents as an urgent cry for education. We redoubled our efforts to develop innovative programs aimed at religious and secular youth, such as "Bridges," which focuses on young adults.

"Bridges" brings groups of religious and secular Jewish teenagers from the same neighborhoods together to find their common bonds. They can at least agree on improving the living conditions in their own community. In "Bridges," the youth determine the agenda: litter, road safety, senior citizens, special-education children. They then created a series of civic actions around that topic. In the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, the young people created a public-relations campaign aimed at educating drivers about the dangers of speeding in residential communities. In the north, youth from Shmuel Hanavi went to local supermarkets to hand out holiday greetings to residents, and distributed food gifts to the poor and elderly.

Not all of the eleven Jerusalem neighborhoods involved in "Bridges" enjoy such success. Unfortunately, the distrust and stereotyping common among the adults find their way to the younger generation. Secular youth do not believe that the religious are truly interested in compromise; the religious fear that the secular are attempting to "seduce" them to leave their way of life.

Similarly, efforts to bring Jews and Arabs together focus on common bonds and not on differences. The Jerusalem Foundation uses the city's many cultural venues to educate Jewish and Arab schoolchildren in an atmosphere of respect and dignity. At the Bloomfield Science Museum, groups of Jewish and Arab schoolchildren participate in after-school workshops. Working in small groups, joint teams design and construct their own science projects. Throughout the program, the students develop friendships, learn one another's language, and participate in cultural education. But there are many obstacles to overcome: The students who sign up for these programs are usually already open-minded; those who would benefit most are usually reluctant to participate.

In learning to work with the Arab community, I found the reaction to my presence was not always what I expected. In one Arab vocational high school, which was part of Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War, the principal and his assistant were shocked to learn of

my leftist political leanings. "We thought that all the American Jews were settlers in the occupied territories," they commented. I had to correct them, noting that while a significant number (if not the majority) of Jewish-American immigrants to Israel are religious and align themselves with the right-wing parties, I was not one of them.

Jerusalem is a city with a growing religious population. Secular Jews are fleeing the city as the religious demand more and more control over neighborhood issues as well as city government. Friends of mine in a Jerusalem suburb are looking to move because they fear that by the time their eleven year-old son is in high school, there won't be any secular school for him to attend.

Despite this, efforts are being made to maintain a secular way of life in the city. More restaurants are defying rabbinic orders and opening their doors on the Sabbath, as are movie theaters and discotheques. (The Jerusalem Foundation invited the Bat Sheva Dance Company to perform "Who Knows One" in the city this past summer.)

Even efforts to promote tolerance and understanding among Jews and Arabs often seem in vain. Great accomplishments seem to vanish every time there is a terrorist attack, or the city authorizes the construction of Jewish homes in an Arab neighborhood. Yet, the record of small accomplishments--and bridges --keeps building.

Kaplan is the newly appointed director of the Center for Jewish Life at Duke.

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