‘Okay, but why not Tel Aviv?’

Photo by the author.
Photo of Lod municipality city sign, photo by the author.

When I told my family that I wanted to volunteer in Israel after graduating university, the reaction was unanimously positive. I would be near cousins and family friends whom I rarely see, and I would be spending a year working in a country that has provided refuge to millions of people of my faith.

But when I told them I wanted to participate in the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Lod, a mixed city in central Israel, the response became one of bewilderment and concern. “Really, Lod?” “It’s so dangerous there.” “Okay, but why not Tel Aviv?”

While these reactions were discouraging, they were also understandable. I grew up in Toronto, and I studied in Montreal. The malls and breezy liberalism of Tel Aviv would be an easy transition for someone used to living in bustling, multicultural cities.

Lod, on the other hand, has a connotation of violence and historical trauma. The 1948 war saw the expulsion of approximately thirty-five thousand Palestinians from the city. This event is memorialized in Palestinian national consciousness as the “Lydda Death March.” Since then, Lod has seen a massive influx of recent Jewish immigrants from across the Jewish diaspora, as well as a steadily rising Arab minority arriving from elsewhere in the region.

Years later, the events of 2021 saw a prolonged riot that left two innocent people dead and shattered the city’s public image in the eyes of the world. No longer a sleepy town known for a fragile Arab-Jewish coexistence, Lod made international headlines in May 2021 by showing how the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into towns and cities within the Israeli side of the “Green Line.”

Despite these concerns, I persisted, and I packed my bags from Canada to Israel. Instead of Speedo-clad men on Tel Aviv beaches, I became accustomed to the stench of sewage wafting through the streets of Lod. Instead of purple peace stickers on grassy college campuses, I encountered tall blue posters of Itamar Ben Gvir plastered onto concrete blocks.

I have spent the past few weeks volunteering in schools, community organizations, and nonprofits. In this time, I have learned that realizing a “mixed city” in Israel requires more than just shoving Arabs and Jews together under the same municipality and hoping for the best. It also involves addressing the injustices, inequalities, and fears keeping these communities apart.

Arab residents in Lod face neglect from a municipal government that does not sufficiently address the needs of their community. Arab citizens often experience racial profiling, and they fear the historical erasure of Palestinian culture, language, and identity.

Jewish residents, many of whom are themselves refugees from other countries, fear for their lives within sovereign areas of a state that was founded to ensure their group’s collective safety. In a tragic twist, a place that was founded to ensure the security of Jews from a hostile outer world has become riddled with internal tension and conflict.

While no group is monolithic, living in Lod has helped me understand the growing political polarization of Israeli society in a way that a liberal enclave like Tel Aviv never could. I am grateful for organizations like the Abraham Initiatives, which are teaching me the challenges of creating a truly egalitarian “mixed city” under such painful and inequitable circumstances. As difficult as all this information may be to digest, my time here so far has been a sobering insight into Jewish-Arab relations in Israel that a Birthright trip could never provide.

As I continue to sink my teeth into this fellowship, I think about how Lod acts as a microcosm of both Israel’s incredible diversity, as well as its profound divisions and existential dilemmas. Lod both represents the intractable challenges facing Israeli politics and society today, but also what could possibly one day be made right.

So, when someone asks me why I am volunteering in Lod, my answer now feels obvious.

To truly understand Israel and the situation here today, why go anywhere else?

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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