One of CIJA’s core objectives is to sustain continued, non-partisan, Canadian support for the people and land of Israel. With that goal in mind, our Board participates in a bi-annual study mission to Israel, meeting with political, civil society, and thought leaders.
This year’s CIJA Board mission occurred at a turning point in how we think about the peace process and featured an outstanding array of speakers, who represented a cross-section of perspectives on the issues currently facing Israel and Israelis.
The tone of our discussions was cautiously optimistic. For example, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be elusive but, at the same time, a range of new approaches is being considered and discussed.
We had the privilege of meeting with leading politicians at the Knesset, including Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin of Likud, Leader of the Official Opposition Isaac Herzog, and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.
Former U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro provided a personal perspective on the U.S.-Israel relationship over the course of the Obama years. His behind-the-scenes insights enhanced our understanding of the dynamics of this unbreakable alliance.
Our lunch session with the new Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, was among the most inspiring and encouraging experiences of our mission. She is smart, personable, energetic, and genuinely interested in hearing our community’s perspective on a wide variety of issues—ranging from trade to diplomacy. This remarkable openness was also reflected in our discussion with Canada’s representative to the Palestinian Authority, Scott Proudfoot.
It was the “people-to-people” initiatives that most impressed – and touched – our board members. The Kids4Peace initiative brings together young people from Jewish and Palestinian communities in and around Jerusalem. They play and learn together, fostering mutual respect and understanding and serving as a beacon of hope for the next generation.
The tireless efforts of many Israelis to assist victims of the Syrian civil war are awe-inspiring as well. Dr. Nir Boms coordinates efforts on the ground, including clothing and food drives, fundraising, and helping those with life-threatening injuries and illnesses to be treated in Israeli hospitals. He relayed the testimony of one Syrian refugee: “We were always taught that Jews and Israelis wanted to kill us and that the Russians and Iranians were our friends. Now Jews and Israelis are saving our lives and it is the Russians and Iranians who are killing us.” This is Israel at its finest.
We heard from representatives of the Arab sector whose voices have often been forgotten. For example, Mohammad Darawshe is a leading spokesman for the Arab community who received a great deal of criticism for leading a school trip to Auschwitz several years ago. He noted that at the outset of the Second Intifada (2000), as Palestinian violence threatened to spill over into Israel, the Israeli Arab community distanced itself from the Palestinians and charted its own course. While speaking frankly about the challenges and ambivalence experienced by Arab Israelis, he remarked that the vast majority of Israel’s Arab population feels fortunate to live and work in the State of Israel.
We visited Intel Jerusalem to learn about the evolving role of ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Israelis. There, we learned about a special program for Haredi women who are often the sole breadwinners in their families. Special workplace accommodation is made for their needs, and they are incredibly proud of their role as productive members of Israeli society. We also heard from the former commander of the Haredi Battalion of the IDF, Yonatan Branski, who noted that the unit is not only a source of tremendous pride for the Israeli army but also encourages young Haredi men to engage with Israeli society and enjoy otherwise inaccessible opportunities for personal development and career advancement.
Some of the most dynamic sessions involved passionate, respectful debate between representatives of differing views. Two young Members of Knesset, Likud’s Sharren Haskel and the Zionist Union’s Stav Shaffir, discussed the challenges and opportunities for women in Israeli politics. Former Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer and Efrat’s Mayor Oded Revivi discussed radically different visions for peace. Journalist Haviv Gur and conservative intellectual Dror Eydar vigorously debated the mission and destiny of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. In all cases, we were struck by the mutual respect that Israelis have for one another and the civility they display even in the midst of their most passionate disagreements – an excellent example for us all!
The Board finished its visit energized and informed, and armed with important insights into the past, hope for the future and a fresh perspective on the critical issues facing Israel and the Jewish People.