This is the first in a series of three articles written by Aly Cash ‘16, Jaih Hunter-Hill ‘15 and Amrita Rao ‘15 reflecting on their experience traveling to Israel over Winter Break on a campus leaders mission sponsored by The David Project.
Seven-year-old Forsan Hussein was chasing a runaway sheep up a grassy mountain by his Arab-Israeli village of Sha’ab when he came across a group of Jewish boys from the neighboring town playing soccer. He watched them from behind a tree with a fair amount of confusion. Where were their horns? He had never actually seen a Jew before, but he knew all Jews had horns from the stories his uncles had told him.
Thirty-four-year-old Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA — dubbed the “Israeli Obama” as one of the most influential Arabs in Israeli society — shared his experience with us four weeks ago, a story that was hard for many in our group to hear.
We were 33 students from nine different universities across America, a mixture of Jews and non-Jews involved in a wide variety of organizations on our respective campuses. What we all had in common was that we had acknowledged our preconceptions about Israel, left them behind in an airport hotel at JFK and traveled to Israel to hear the stories and learn the truths of people from across the social, religious and political spectrum. We had come together through The David Project, an NGO that works with students to foster relationship-building skills and facilitate conversations among groups with different perspectives on Israel.
Hussein gave us a particularly clear framework for the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Since the creation of Israel, he argues, Jewish Israelis have not grown out of their mindset of fear and paranoia spawning from their history of persecution, while the Arab minority suffers from a mentality of victimhood, living as it does as a minority in a majority Jewish state. As long as this cycle of paranoia and victimhood continues, and as long as defensive walls separating communities remain the norm, all shots at coexistence will continue to miss their mark.
Throughout our trip, the perspectives we collected from ordinary Israelis all exemplified some aspect of this macroscopic trend that Hussein pinpointed, no matter how different their individual situations in life. Whether Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli or Palestinian, the people we talked to were not interested in hashing out the past or fixating on details of the negotiations. They all cared more about social and economic issues that would improve the everyday quality of life in their communities. But these are issues that nevertheless remain low-profile due to the immense attention and resources devoted to the political Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Put simply, in the international eye, the Israeli people take a back seat.
Take the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), for example. Israel is widely denounced for its military system and is seen as aggressive and authoritarian for its policy that every citizen must serve in the military. However, the Israeli military has a very different structure from most other countries, and locals view it in a very different light. Ambitious Israeli high school students don’t study for the SATs: They prepare for screening tests for admission into the elite units of the army. And not all IDF personnel serve in combat roles: After basic training, new soldiers have many options for the kinds of positions they can hold in the military based on their own interests. While some volunteer for combat, others work as programmers, nurses or security guards for tourist groups.
Military training also kick-starts the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that has made Israel a technological incubator second only to the United States. We had the opportunity to visit Google’s Israel research center, their administrative hub for the entire Middle East and even parts of Europe and Africa. Google recognizes the chutzpah, a mindset of questioning and challenging norms and quickly moving forward with new ideas, that makes Israel the “startup nation” that it is.
The company’s initiatives in Israel include programs that catalyze the growth of more promising new companies. Google Israel has an entire floor where startups can rent space and work under the mentorship of experienced Google executives. Another program helps small businesses without an online presence to develop and promote their websites to reach international markets.
The results are striking. Consider that Israel gave the world flash drives, Windows XP, Intel dual core processors, the Waze navigation system, Answers.com, cherry tomatoes and solar windows. And yet Israeli innovation still flies under the radar for ordinary Americans.
Whatever you’ve heard about Israel from the distant political standpoint presented in the news, you can be sure that on-the-ground perspectives of Israelis will challenge it. In this article and the next two, we hope to give you snapshots of the reality of everyday life for the Israelis that shared their stories with us.