I visited Israel last week, to witness first-hand the support that my organisation, UJIA, has made available in communities like Ashkelon that were under rocket fire from Gaza. But I also spent time in towns like Akko and Lod, where just three weeks earlier, riots and violence shook the country. Neighbours turned on neighbours. Mobs carried out lynchings and threw stones and Molotov cocktails. I saw for myself the appalling damage to property and met people still traumatised by the harrowing scenes they experienced.
I felt contrasting emotions. On the one hand, I was left in no doubt as to the enormity of the task of repairing and building a shared society in Israel. On the other, I was inspired by the many people I met whose hope, belief and commitment to that goal is stronger than ever.
I am always amazed by the resilience of Israeli society and never more so than over the last few days. This resilience is embodied by Uri Yirmias who, many readers will know, is the owner of the Uri Buri restaurant and hotel in Akko. Uri is an icon of shared society or what he calls “common existence living.”
During the violence, Uri was in his apartment above the restaurant when he was warned that a mob was going to burn it down. Today, the restaurant is a burned-out shell but this entrepreneurial Israeli is already rebuilding it.
Uri did not shy away from complexity as he spoke to us about the complicated relationship between the Arab community and the State of Israel.
Remarkably and inspiringly, however, Uri was sanguine and without bitterness as he urged us to think about what we can learn from what has happened. What lessons should we take away? How can we use this experience to create a better future? How can we ensure that people don’t lose their faith in the concept of a shared society? How can we put what we learn into action? He doesn’t want endless academic debate – he wants positive action.
Uri himself is a man of action, and whilst his restaurant is being rebuilt, he has opened up a temporary restaurant providing work for his 62 staff, a mix of Jews and Arabs. I was lucky enough to eat there. It was as delicious as ever and, knowing Uri, I suspect he will keep it open even after his original restaurant has been rebuilt!
I met many others who, like Uri, keep hope alive. Like the wonderful educators from Dror Israel, who have continued running a bike project where kids from across Akko society come together to build and repair their bikes. I saw a diverse mix of young people – Arabs, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians –chatting away about bikes, rejecting a cycle of violence for cycles of hope. It was all the more remarkable when I heard what they had been through during the riots.
These young educators literally had to barricade themselves in. They watched from the rooftop as their neighbourhood was set ablaze and a lynching took place below. Rioters gathered outside the front door armed with Molotov Cocktails. Luckily, the police came and the rioters moved on. Despite such recent trauma, the bike project carries on. These grass roots initiatives make Uri proud and hopeful, providing what he says is the most important thing of all – a chance to show respect to one another.
I left Akko under no illusions. The job of rebuilding trust is a long-term process. But I also saw a passion and determination to work harder, stronger and smarter than ever before to create a shared society. I have been asked what can we do as a community? Once the dust settles, I believe we need to show our support, sensitive and responsive to the needs of these communities, and guided by those within them who in the face of such terrifying recent events remain so positive and constructive. We must ask the difficult questions about why this happened and ask how we, as Diaspora Jews committed to Israel, can work with our Israeli partners to help them ensure it doesn’t happen again. UJIA stands ready and committed to continue the work we have been doing for over a hundred years to strengthen Israel so that every citizen can have a promising future.