From Avoidance to Engagement by Abby Levine

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From avoidance to engagement: What I learned by bringing American Jewish social justice leaders to Israel


Opening eyes

In Short

Getting people closer to the ‘messiness’ of the conflict, showing them multiple narratives and giving them confidence to discuss the topic are key to preventing withdrawal from Israel by Jewish activists.

During this reflective month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holy Days, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s first-ever trip to Israel last fall stands out to me as one of the highlights of this year.

Since I started leading the Roundtable a decade ago, people have consistently asked me, “What is the role of Israel in the Jewish social justice field?” That question has become exponentially more relevant as ongoing threats to Israel’s democracy – and dynamics related to Israel and the Palestinian territories – complicate our understandings of justice, coalition-building, belonging and home.

Participants in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s 'Changemakers to Changemakers' trip to Israel and the West Bank in 2022.

Courtesy/Jewish Social Justice Roundtable

Participants in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s ‘Changemakers to Changemakers’ trip to Israel and the West Bank in 2022.

In fact, these developments led me to coin a new term: “convergence moments,” when dynamics around racism, antisemitism and Israel/Palestine converge, collide or interfere with partners in the Jewish or justice spheres. These moments are marked by intense public attention and ideological messiness, as well as threats from progressive and conservative voices. These threats, either real or perceived, require courage to address.

While Jewish social justice leaders have made positive strides in how we handle convergence moments, these tensions aren’t going anywhere. As long as antisemitism, racism and injustice continue, we can expect convergence moments to repeat themselves, albeit slightly differently each time.

That’s why the Roundtable led a “Changemakers to Changemakers” trip, in partnership with the New Israel Fund. Bringing 30 Jewish social justice leaders to Israel and the Palestinian territories represented a necessary shift from avoidance to engagement.

I’m proud to report that the executive leaders who joined us walked away with more confidence, stories and relationships with Israeli and Palestinian changemakers on the ground. The group as a whole applied a lens of justice and equity to see what’s happening in Israel – a lens that became necessary as the judicial reform protests shifted the realities there and in the U.S. We learned a lot from this inaugural trip. Three lessons in particular stand out from the experience and the external evaluation we conducted:

Lesson 1: Getting close to our Israeli and Palestinian peers working for social change is an antidote to avoidance and a pathway to hope and engagement

We don’t have all the answers for how to navigate the myriad ways in which Israel, democracy and Jewish and Palestinian self-determination show up in social justice movements, but we had a hypothesis: One way through the messiness is, in Bryan Stevenson’s words, to get proximate to the real-life people and issues on the ground. And that is exactly what we did.

We were inspired by the commitment, vision and perseverance of the changemakers we met. From bereaved parents who lost their children to the conflict to elected leaders of municipalities like Haifa or Tel Aviv, we saw them as kindred spirits and compatriots in the work for justice. When we asked one Jewish Israeli elected official what gives her hope, especially after the last Israeli election cycle in 2022, she said versions of what we say to ourselves:

What other choice is there?

We must fight for our country.

We must fight for the young people who are looking to us.

Despair is not an option.

She and others with whom we met also said clearly, forcefully:  “This is lonely, hard work and we need partners. Don’t abandon us.”

Being able to see yourself in someone else, even for just a moment, is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s that feeling that enables us to move away from avoidance and toward engagement, despite the challenges. That feeling is what led participants to say that they have a sense of responsibility and obligation to not only understand the humanity of our Israeli and Palestinian peers fighting for justice, but to follow their lead.

Lesson 2: Providing multiple, sometimes conflicting, narratives is essential for growth and progress

Most of us grew up in a Jewish world in which Israel trips were designed to inspire an uncritical love of Israel and tended to gloss over the challenges the country faced. This trip’s peer-to-peer model allowed for a more expansive – and, I would argue, relevant – conversation.

Showcasing dozens of Israeli and Palestinian changemakers over the course of the trip, giving them the opportunity to share their personal stories about why and how they do the work, let participants see the fullness of the prevailing (and sometimes conflicting) narratives.

During a dual-narrative tour of the Old City with Mejdi, for instance, the Arab tour guide pointed toward a room where he said the Last Supper happened. The Jewish guide, a few minutes later, said there’s no evidence that the Last Supper happened in that room. Reconciling those two facts seems impossible, and yet they coexist in the same space: a microcosm of Jerusalem. Holding multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives necessitates “both/and” thinking – elu v’elu – which is central to Jewish tradition and part of the recipe for improving the situation in the region and in our own communities.

One of the things that happened when we took on a elu v’elu mindset is that we ourselves became more flexible with the terms we used, whether that was “Palestinian territories” versus “Palestine” versus “the West Bank,” or “Zionism” versus “Jewish liberation” versus “Jewish homeland.” One of the takeaways from our trip is that having proximity to the multiple existing narratives allows us to be more fluid when it comes to language, what we see and hear and how it applies to our own identities.

Lesson 3: Participants walked away from the trip with greater confidence to take risks in difficult conversations

Having direct experiences within the Israeli-Palestinian context fosters a foundation from which to speak, ask direct questions and express one’s own beliefs. This is particularly true when the speaker feels at the margins of a community, whether because of one’s racial, gender or political identities – a reality for many participants of our trip.

In one conversation on the trip, a Palestinian leader was asked what she would say to Jewish social justice leaders facing coalitions where they are sometimes excluded or marginalized because of their relationships with Israel.

“When people in the U.S. put their own ideologies onto my life, they are using me,” she replied. The debate about BDS or Zionism in the U.S. centers the feelings of Americans as opposed to the realities of Palestinian or Israeli people. The debates end up being about our context and our politics, not about what will actually improve lives on the ground.

Our participants gained credibility and some fluency on multiple issues, including the impact of the occupation and the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms (already eliciting concern at the time), and we learned how to re-center conversations on the people on the ground who are directly affected by injustices. It felt like we were living an experiment: a new kind of trip for the new moment we found ourselves in.

And we are still seeing the impacts of the trip unfold. We are seeing what greater confidence and understanding will mean for the landscape of Jewish communal leadership. Of course, no one trip can solve all the complicated, messy dynamics we face, but it was an important step toward a more healthy, liberated, multidimensional model of relationships between Jewish social justice leaders and the people of Israel.

Abby Levine is executive director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

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