Sowing the Seeds of Peace – A Message from Deborah Corber

Bedouin and Jewish children welcoming Shabbat together.

By Deborah Corber // Chief Executive Officer, Federation CJA

As I write this, I am on a Swiss Air flight headed for Zurich, with the ultimate destination of Tel Aviv.  Though the trip is interminably long, and I know that I won’t fully conquer my jet lag (until it’s time to return home and experience jet lag all over again), I can’t deny my excitement to be joining the Campaign 2013 Chairman’s Mission.  This will be my 5th trip to Israel since I began working at Federation CJA in 2011 and I am expecting to return to Montreal as I always do, bursting with new ideas and insights, and feeling a heightened awareness of the profound ties that bind the Jewish people together.

Coming Home

Just a few short hours before my departure, I found myself trying to explain my deep connection to Israel to a Vietnamese woman that I know.  “I was born and raised in Canada,” I told her, “and I feel truly blessed to live in one of the greatest countries in the world!”  And yet, when I am in Israel – even though my Hebrew is virtually non-existent and I still struggle to find my way around – I feel like I have come home, like I am brushing shoulders with members of my own family.  And much like the love I feel for my most cherished family members, my love for Israel means that I have a personal stake in Israel’s future: I take pride in her staggering accomplishments, I fear for her security, I defend her against the anti-semitism that masquerades as anti-zionism, and I feel thoroughly entitled to second-guess her policy choices.  And of course, like my fellow Jews in Montreal and all over the world, I pray for a secure and enduring peace.

The challenges of attaining peace

One of the huge challenges to attaining that peace will be overcoming the deeply ingrained mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, and to a lesser degree, between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.  And we would be naive to underestimate the work that lies ahead in confronting this challenge.

In his film Precious Life (2010), Israeli journalist, Shlomi Eldar documents the story of a Palestinian woman from Gaza (Raida) who spends several months at Tel-Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv with her infant son, Mohammed, as he is treated for a life-threatening genetic disease (one that has already taken two other children from her).  Mohammed’s only hope lies with a Jewish Israeli physician (Dr. Raz Somech) who may he able to save him with a bone marrow transplant.

We watch as Raida experiences what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”: Jewish medical professionals, pulling out all the stops to save Baby Mohammed’s life as though he were one of their own, yet bearing no earthly resemblance to the images of Jews that she has been fed since birth.  As if that weren’t enough, the cost of the surgery ($50,000) was covered by an anonymous Jewish Israeli, who despite having lost his own son to the conflict, stepped forward to help spare this young Palestinian child.  (I won’t tell you how the story ends because I think the movie is worth seeing, but suffice it to say that it is disheartening in the extreme.)

And yet, I know from my previous career representing Canada in land claim negotiations with First Nations, that centuries of anger and mistrust can be overcome.

Hagar School teaches tolerance in the Negev

On my last trip to Israel in February I spent Friday morning at the Hagar School, in Beer Sheva/Bnei Shimon (Montreal’s Partnership region), where I watched as Jewish and Bedouin children linked arms, sang songs and together ushered in Shabbat.  Hagar is an elementary school for Jewish and Bedouin Israeli children, with every classroom from Kindergarden to Grade 6 being staffed by a Bedouin and Jewish teacher.  The projects that grace the school’s halls are in Hebrew and Arabic, the library (which looks like the inside of a pirate’s ship but doubles as a bomb shelter) is stocked with Arabic and Hebrew titles, and the schoolyard was built by the Bedouin and Jewish parents, designing, fundraising and labouring side by side.

A funny thing happened on the way to teaching their children respect for “the other”.  The Jewish and Bedouin Arab parents found themselves getting together on weekends, first for their children’s play dates, and later for their own: they actually became friends.  And this was a development – a minor miracle – that even the parents who dreamt of a better world for their children had dared not dream for themselves.

I saw the Hagar School with my own eyes, drank in the smiles on the shining faces of these Jewish and Arab children and reveled in the sounds of their innocent voices as they welcomed Shabbat; I witnessed the genuine friendships based on mutual respect and grounded in shared experience that had blossomed among the families of the Hagar community.

Federation CJA plays key role in the region

Bedouin Israelis make up 25% of the population of the Negev, ranking lower than their Jewish neighbors on virtually every social and economic indicator.  Increasing investment in the infrastructure that supports Bedouin society is a strategic priority of the Mayors of Beer Sheva and Bnei Shimon, who make the case that having a strong and healthy Bedouin community is absolutely key to a thriving Negev.

Taking our lead from the mayors, Federation CJA supports the Hagar School, which meets one of our own strategic objectives for engagement in Israel: “promoting and supporting tolerance and coexistence”.  Other objectives are:

  • Supporting youth-at-risk
  • Attracting population and population retention
  • Enhancing Jewish identity, and
  • Furthering Israel education and engagement.

My visit to the Hagar School moved me to tears, but they were, as my daughter used to call them, “tears of happiness”.  Because this small experiment is already bearing sweeter fruit than anyone might have expected, because Federation CJA had the foresight to support this school in its infancy, because it showed that our contributions can make a real difference on the ground, and because it was proof positive that the seeds of peace were being sown in my beloved Israel.

I wonder what little miracles await me on the mission that is about to begin…

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