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Reaching for the Dream

NBEC delegation outside the Knesset, December 2022.  Photo by Marco Antonio Henry.
NBEC delegation outside the Knesset, December 2022. Photo by Marco Antonio Henry.

“If you will it, it is no dream.”  These motivational words of Theodor Herzl propelled the Zionist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the dream of a Jewish return to Zion seemed utterly fanciful.  The idea behind Herzl’s words has been adopted by what at first may seem like an unlikely group, the National Black Empowerment Council (NBEC).  But it fits perfectly.

The NBEC brings together, in their own words, “principled, socially conscious, and civically engaged men and women in important positions within the public and private sector” to “empower Black communities and advance the cause of economic and social justice in America.”  Black America faces numerous challenges – acute and systemic racism, economic disparity and educational underachievement, to name a few.  They might seem overwhelming, but the NBEC and its members believe in the power of self-determination and empowerment, as individuals and as a community, to overcome the obstacles.

Though the specific goals are unique to each community, NBEC members share much with Herzl’s ideology.  Like Herzl, NBEC believes in the power of self-determination – the power of believing in one’s ability to achieve even the most impossible sounding goals.  Like Herzl, NBEC promotes both individual and communal regeneration to pave the road to a better future.  And like Herzl, NBEC values the support and partnership of people outside its immediate community to achieve “the dream” of self-empowerment.

Last month, I had the unique opportunity travel with an NBEC delegation to Israel, its first ever, as a scholar in residence.  More than one speaker, after learning about NBEC’s mission, asked “why Israel?” – what is a group focused on Black self-empowerment doing on an educational tour of Israel?

Darius Jones, the visionary founder and president of NBEC, gave the answer:  we see in the story of the Jewish people and the creation of the modern state of Israel one of the most powerful examples of collective self-determination, and we are here to learn how we can incorporate those ideas in our own movement while learning about a place that is so central to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Uniformly, the response was, “I get that.”

The experience was transformational – in the group’s understanding of Israel, of each other and their potential within NBEC.  In an outstanding tour curated by Israel Seminar, we visited Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the borders with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. We met with Israeli Jews and Arabs – members of Knesset, journalists and thinkers, and we visited with senior Palestinian Authority leaders and young Palestinian entrepreneurs.  We encountered competing narratives, passions and convictions, we felt the spiritual power of the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem’s holy sites, and we sampled Israel’s cultural and culinary offerings. The range of perspectives was wide, and our discussions were deep and meaningful.

No one leaves a trip like this with all the answers, but no one leaves the same as they arrived.  Trip participants gained a rare glimpse inside Israel, and inside themselves.  They are now each empowered to speak about Israel in the first person.  “I was there, and this is what I saw.”  Whatever their views on the hot-button issues involving Israel, they each returned to the United States able to relate to Jewish Americans who are deeply connected to Israel in new and important ways.

The experience in Israel also bonded together the members of the group, most of whom did not know each other personally in advance.  They formed their own collective that is now linked to the larger NBEC leadership network sharing a vision for their future and the American promise.  Their potential is immense.

The group repeated a phrase at various points in the week:  “We did that.”  It was a way of acknowledging the power they bring to the table, individually and collectively, to impact the world around them in positive ways.  It is the natural result of the mental framework articulated by Theodor Herzl.  Believe in yourself and the power you can offer, and then acknowledge what you’ve achieved.  Herzl did not live long enough to see the realization of his dream, but this delegation did, and in turn, they strive for a vision that they may or may not see, but their children and grandchildren certainly will.  I am reminded of the powerful words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The leaders at NBEC are helping us reach the Promised Land.  We will all be the beneficiaries of their work.

About the Author
Jeff Mendelsohn is the founding Executive Director of Pro-Israel America and Pro-Israel America United. Jeff brings years of legislative, political and organizational experience, having served as chief of staff for two Texas members of Congress for a dozen years. During his ten-plus years at AIPAC, Jeff launched and managed the AIPAC Outreach Program which successfully engaged non-Jewish constituencies, including Hispanics, African Americans, progressives, veterans and evangelical Christians in pro-Israel activism.
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