Last week, a taxi driver asked me what I was doing in Israel. I explained I was here on a 9 month service-learning fellowship based in Lod. He asked what I did wrong to be living in Lod.
Over the last month, interactions like these have been frequent, and have left me thinking about why I chose to volunteer in Lod, instead of Rishon Lezion or Haifa, the two other cities where Yahel runs their Social Change Fellowship. Even before arriving in Israel in September, friends and family asked why I chose to live in Lod and expressed their concern for my safety after hearing about the violence in May. My response to these questions is all the same: if I am coming to Israel with the aim of learning about shared society and offering my skills if needed, why wouldn’t I come to Lod? With all it’s problems, Lod is a city which magnifies the countless issues and inequalities within Israel as a whole.
In the American media, the violence in May was portrayed as a clearly ethnically-motivated outburst. After hearing from Lod residents who experienced the violence firsthand, it was clear that the conflict went deeper than just ethnicity. Lod has seen forced expulsions of Arabs in 1948, the Israeli government moving Arab collaborators and displaced Bedouins in the 70s and 80s, the corrupt municipality going bankrupt, and most recently, wealthier Jewish families from outside Lod began building modern apartment complexes for their families. Depending on who you ask, this increase over the last 20 years could be seen as a benefit for Lod, since a more highly educated workforce is moving to the social and economic periphery of Israel. It could be a Zionist move to Judaize a historically Arab town, it could be gentrification, made more complex because of Arab-Jewish divides, or it could be that high housing prices are driving families to search for houses outside the major cities in Israel.
Regardless of how you look at it, there are deeply rooted problems in Israel that came to a head in May. Mixed cities like Lod are particularly important, and present a unique opportunity for shared experiences and growth as a society. Living, working, and learning together as a community allows for deeper understanding and civil society organizations like the Abraham Initiatives are leveraging the events in May as a catalyst for social change.
Through the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, I have the opportunity to intern with the Abraham Initiatives. By focusing on four main initiatives and conducting extensive research on impact and public opinion, the Abraham Initiatives aims to increase equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. I am particularly interested in the Shared Learning initiative, as well as encouraging constructive dialogue between Arabs and Jews in mixed cities. The education system in Israel focuses mainly on preserving individual’s identity, and thus is separated into Religious Jewish, Secular Jewish, and Arab schools. While it is essential to all communities to preserve cultural identity, language, and historical narratives, having little to no interactions with those who differ from you does nothing to promote shared society and tolerance. The Abraham Initiative’s Shared Learning uses a model from schools in Northern Ireland, focusing on shared society, inclusion, and empathy, while teaching English to Jewish and Arab students together in grades 8 and 9.
As a progressive American Jew, I have the privilege of seeing the problems in Israel and the Palestinian territories with a more, but certainly not completely, objective lens. As an outsider in Israel, I cannot imagine the emotional toll of living in an active conflict zone, with generational trauma affecting Palestinians and Jews, and having to think first and foremost about personal safety. I don’t yet know what my place is here, or if I even have a place in Israel. As an outsider to this conflict, I am in Lod to learn as much as I can and to offer my skills wherever they are needed in the community to make the daily lives of the residents here as peaceful and meaningful as possible.