By JEROME E. FISCHER
As Israel continues to attract new waves of immigrants, it adapts to being both a melting pot and a unifying home
A promise is a funny thing. In Hebrew God does not "promise" the land of Israel to Abraham, he "swears" or gives an "oath" to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that this land will be the land of their descendants. In "Fiddler on the Roof " Tevye asks God, given the suffering of the Jews in Europe, and the pogroms that were driving the Jews out of Anatevka, if God could have perhaps chosen another people.
One could ask the same question about the land of Israel. Maybe God could have chosen another country, perhaps with a little more water, a little less of a crossroad between Africa, Asia, and Europe? You know, a nice little country tucked away in the corner of the world where no one will really bother you; a place that armies will not trample on their way to their latest conquest.
It seems God really gave the Jewish People a challenge, this land of Israel was not going to be an easy place to live - little water, plenty of enemies, the periodic conqueror. We were defeated, expelled, returned (by a Persian Emperor). We became a "wandering People," the "People of the Book," a religion, victims of centuries of violence and discrimination in Europe and Asia, and finally the ones who suffered an unprecedented tragedy that coined a new word, "genocide."
And it was the nations of the world, after the horrors of the Jewish genocide during WW II that voted to declare the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel.
Rabbi Carl Astor and I brought 25 people along with us to visit that old/new nation-state this past March 14-25, shortly before Israel's 64th birthday. Our group was diverse, its goals varied. Four participants were Christians. Several of us were going in the hope of having joyful reunions. All of us were a bit nervous about the "Iran situation" and the recent missile attacks from Gaza.
It was my fifth mission to Israel with Rabbi Astor and our focus this time was different. We wanted to concentrate a little more than usual on two important parts of life in Israel. First, the continuing return of Jews to their old/new home; and, second, the challenges of making Israel a truly democratic nation/state that could be a model to the entire region of how to treat all citizens equally and resolve differences without violence.
We spent a morning at an Absorption Center for Ethiopian Jews. Since Zionism arose as a force in modern Jewish life there have been waves of immigrations to Israel; Rumanian, Polish, Hungarian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Yemenite Jews have all arrived in Israel and shaped the country.
In recent years the huge influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and then the dramatic rescue and resettlement of the Jews of Ethiopia have highlighted the raison d'être for the Jewish state; it is a safe haven for persecuted Jews.
And the Ethiopians are still coming. Christian relatives of Ethiopian Jews are also coming, returning to Judaism, and becoming part of Israel.
At the Absorption Center we saw some of the programs that the Jewish Agency and the government run to help the new immigrants adapt. We visited a traditional Ethiopian hut and a workshop for elderly Ethiopians who practice their crafts. We visited a school where Ethiopians are learning Hebrew, learning about modern society, and getting ready to enter mainstream Israeli life.
In Haifa we spent a morning viewing the Bahai shrine and visiting the Ahmadiya mosque before touring Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood on the slope of Mt. Carmel. Wadi Nisnas is distinguished by public art and festivals dedicated to inter-communal understanding and cooperation. We finished this morning with a lunch of Arab delicacies and a briefing at Beit HaGefen on the ongoing work to break down barriers between Jewish and Arab Israelis in Haifa.
Three couples from the group joined me for an evening at the home of Nael and Yasmin Zuabi in the Arab village of Kfar Nein. Nael is the principal of an Arab school in Tamra, near Afula, and a strong advocate for Israeli Arabs doing national service as a way to support their country.
Nael reflects a growing realization of and commitment to a fully equal, pluralistic Israeli society, and he is dedicated to helping Arab Israelis find a way to identify with and support their country. It is a viewpoint that is gaining strength within Israel, and an aspiration whose realization will make Israel a true beacon for the future in the Middle East.
Our travels also took us to the Jezreel Valley, a very special place in Israel going back to ancient times. The prophet Elisha prophesied the birth of a child to a family in Shunam, and then revived him from death. Jesus healed the widow's child in Nein. An Emissary of the Prophet Muhammad, Dahia Bin Khalifa, is buried in Dahi, giving the village its name. Muslim Arab women go to his grave to pray for their children's health.
Three villages - Nein, Dahi, and Shunam/Sulam - within shouting distance of each other, places where people have long beseeched God to help create or heal children. May these places in Israel reflect the future promise of the country, a nation where all children, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim can be born, grow and prosper. May they help teach the world that loving kindness is the best way to peace.
Jerome E. Fischer is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.