Since I am not an employee of a federation, I do not always attend the General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of Jewish community federations. But this year I did so in order to moderate a panel that reviewed how issues had remained the same or changed for Jewish women since the publication of "Voices for Change: Future Directions for American Jewish Women" exactly 12 years ago.
This year’s GA took place last month in Nashville, Tenn. According to GA organizers, 3,500 people attended, including 325 Hillel students representing 84 universities. As is true for all conventions, there was a lot to do, many people to see, and countless discussions to participate in. Although I was unable to stay for the full three days, I came away thinking I learned a great deal.
The first impression I had concerned the enormous respect given to young people. Young social entrepreneurs who have created films, organizations, Web sites and more were featured in many sessions. A standing-room-only crowd attended Ari Sandel’s screening of his film "West Bank Story," which won a 2007 Academy Award as Best Live Action Short Film.
"West Bank Story" is a farcical, melodramatic, and improbable star-crossed love affair featuring an Israeli soldier (David) and a Palestinian woman (Fatima). Based on Leonard Bernstein’s "West Side Story," this Middle East version depicts the Jews and the Arabs as the two gangs; two competitive falafel stands (Hummus Hut and Kosher King) constitute the neighborhood; and the violence eventually develops into enthusiastic economic cooperation.
Sandel, a charismatic young man who made the movie as a student project at the University of Southern California film school, has shown "West Bank Story" to a wide range of audiences all over the world. After the screening at the GA, he participated in a discussion of his film. He said almost no one takes offense to the portrayal of the Israelis or Palestinians, although neither is portrayed sympathetically. The audience at the GA was nearly falling off their seats with laughter. At long last, we could laugh, rather than cry, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I thought to myself that maybe the new generation can find a way to convince people of the absurdity of continuous and deadly antagonism.
Another packed session was "Seeking Equality for Jews and Arabs in Israel," sponsored by the Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. The concept behind the two-year-old task force is truly revolutionary, particularly given that it is part of the mainstream United Jewish Communities organization. The group compels us to think about what we mean when we say we support Israel. Do we support Israel as a whole or only the Jewish community within Israel? Moreover, what kind of society do we want Israel to be? Should it be one in which all citizens are equal, or one in which some have more rights and opportunities than others? Can we allow Israel to have "second-class citizens?" As the JTA reported in June 2007, "nearly one in five Israeli citizens is Arab, yet this population of 1.2 million still is seeking equality."
Recognition of this problem is important both for moral and practical reasons. The moral ones are self-evident: If Israel is a democracy, then all citizens must be considered equal under the law. On the practical level, the Israeli government is concerned that the discontent in the Arab sector may lead to civil unrest and violence. Israeli Arabs who are members of the Knesset have met with Syrians and Lebanese groups hostile to Israel. In December 2006, 40 Israeli Arab intellectuals drafted a statement, "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs," that denigrated Israeli’s history, called for the Palestinians’ right of return to Israel, and demanded changing the symbols in the Israeli flag.
The description of the session I attended on this topic was very clear: "The Government of Israel has identified the elimination of inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens as a national priority, and many North American Jewish organizations have pledged to address this issue as well. How can federations develop a grant-making and allocations strategy to address this issue? Hear from federation lay leaders and professionals involved in funding the Israeli Arab sector."
In the discussion following presentations by speakers from Israel, Boston, New York, and Chicago, various Israelis in the audience talked about how challenging this concept of seeing Israeli Arabs as full citizens was for Israeli Jews. Selling the concept to some federations in the United States was less difficult, they claimed.
I came away from Nashville truly inspired by the innovative work that many "Jewish civil servants" are doing. I left with cautious optimism that their films and programs will help us confront effectively the overwhelming problems the Jewish people and the State of Israel currently face.