This is the story of 6 non Jewish young political activists. Arriving for a political study trip, they expected to find camels and dust, but were instead wowed by Silicon Wadi and the start up nation. After 10 days of intense political touring they left vowing to return and to do all in their power to strengthen Australia-Israel ties. While in Israel, the group were privileged to have high profile speakers and commentators such as David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, current and former ministers and MKs, members of the security establishment, to visit an IDF base and Sderot, and even to hear from the head of a Palestinian village. Overall for me as the group leader and organizer it was the experience of a lifetime, and one I hope to repeat soon. Many lessons we’re learnt. These are my top five:
1. The stereotypes are simply wrong:
At the end of our first full night in Israel, David Horovitz told us that we would leave with far less clarity than when we arrived.
The first time that I really felt this was in the home of the Palestinian village leader. Expecting to hear of settlers, soldiers, checkpoints price-tags and alleged Israeli human rights abuses in general, most of our host’s anger was instead directed towards politicians generally and the Palestinian Authority in particular. Sure he had grievances with Israel, but only when pressed with very specific and leading questions did he express them, and even then he displayed almost no hard will towards the settler communities that surround his village.
Later that day we visited an illegal Jewish outpost. Most of the group expected to find the narrow minded Bible thumping character shown in the western media. Instead we were invited into the home of a young seemingly traditional but not overtly religious man living at the outpost at least partly for economic reasons. We were also shown how the outpost boundaries were (supposedly at least) drawn to avoid infringing on privately held Palestinian fields. Without taking a position on the outposts, it is fair to say that one would not expect this based on how these people are portrayed stereotypically by the western media.
2. Israel’s resilience is unshakable
Visiting Sderot is incredible. Although the story of the suffering of this small town cannot be ignored, for me, seeing the number of new homes under construction was the highlight of our visit, as was realizing that students continue to move from other parts of the country to the nearby academic college.
Later, members of my group told me that the bravery and resilience of Israelis truly struck them on realizing that they were eating at a packed establishment that had been the site of a brutal bombing during the Second Intifida.
Although to an extent not by choice, the ability of Israelis to focus in the good and not allow terror to dictate their lives will ultimately ensure victory over terror organizations, and is one of the things that makes Israel truly unique.
3. Israel is a land of miracles
Visiting during Chanukah, we were told the story of the Maccabees and the oil almost everywhere. Truth be told, I have never really related to this story greatly, yet for me one of the most poignant moments was indeed about a miracle. We were sitting with an MK at the Knesset. The MK told our group how at the age of 10 he had attended a protest in support of Soviet Jewry and had been given a sign saying “free Yuli Edelstein”. He then asked the group if they knew the name of the current speaker of the Knesset. The shock on some of the group’s faces on learning that it was the same Yuli Edelstein was poignant.
4. Zionism is alive and well
Contrary to what one member of my group had been taught in an Israel studies class at university, he did not encounter examples of Post Zionism throughout Israel. Rather, from the soldiers with whom we met explaining their pride in defending the country to those moving to Sderot, and amongst the Jews who rightly or wrongly continue to settle in places like Hebron, over the past 10 days we had the opportunity to meet the most patriotic of people all of whom ultimately want the best for their country and people.
Along the way there were plenty of individuals and organizations who take a stance critical of the current government, and we did encounter one young person who claimed to “not be very Zionist”. However when asked what he meant, he answered that he did not want to blindly support Israeli government policy, something with which we hopefully all agree.
Overall it was clear that the vast majority of Israelis are still passionately Zionistic, even if they don’t express as much in their daily lives.
5. Israel speaks for itself
Over the 10 days we had incredible speakers, yet what really impressed was Israel itself. The vibrancy of Tel Aviv (and Jerusalem’s) nightlife, the beauty of the Negev, and the warmth of the people. This is what I believe will leave a lasting impression on each and every group member, and this is what Israel needs to showcase.