Israel has captured the imagination and the attention of the world for thousands of years. Established in 1948, the modern Jewish state has evolved into a unique and dynamic nation. Situated in one of the world’s most volatile regions on land revered as holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the nation of Israel is not without its share of problems, but arguably one of the most significant issues faced by this small but potent country is a lack of knowledge and understanding by many of the citizens of Israel’s greatest supporter-the United States of America.
In an effort to educate people, the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara held its third annual community-wide teach-in on Israel on Sunday. The all-day event included a number of speakers who discussed topics ranging from Israeli security to media coverage of Israel-related issues to the multicultural fabric of modern Israeli society. Committee Chair Peter Melnick said that the primary goal of the conference was to foment lively discussion examining Israel’s issues from different perspectives within the Jewish community. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer of the Community Shul of Montecito, one of the committee’s members, summed up the goal of the teach-in best, quoting a part of the Jewish oral tradition known as Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is strong? One who has a vision they can hold on to,” he said. “Our vision is to understand Israel. We are not here to support blindly, but Israel is our family and we are here to support our family.”
The morning session of the teach-in began on a serious note, with Nadav Morag-the political science department chair at American Jewish University and former director for foreign policy at the Israel National Security Council-speaking about the controversial topic of Israeli security. Without promoting or refuting actions of the Israeli government, Morag laid out a straightforward explanation of Israel’s security threats, and the most effective methods found to deal with them. “You don’t have an enemy out on the battlefield that you can go bomb into the Stone Age,” he said. “You’ve got people hiding within a society. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Morag continued that the searches conducted in response to terrorist activities, and the controversial security barrier between Israeli settlements and West Bank communities create tremendous economic hardship for Palestinians, but that the benefit is seen for Israelis in reduced terrorism. “You can’t win a war on terrorism,” he said, stating that although arrests and targeted killing of terrorist operatives is very effective at reducing incidences of terrorism, it also increases Palestinian rage of the sort seen during the Intifadas and expands the pool of people willing to resort to terrorism.
The question of Iran’s nuclear capabilities occupied pole position in Morag’s presentation. He said that more worrisome than the prospect of Iran having nuclear weapons is the concern that they would sell them to terrorist organizations, although that doesn’t seem likely. “No country has ever given a terrorist organization access to strategic level weapons,” he said, positing that Iranians probably have no interest in giving terrorists nuclear weapons for fear that they may be turned back upon them. “Iran wants to secure leadership around the Persian Gulf and win hearts and minds of Arabs there.”
Keynote speaker Donna Rosenthal, international journalist and author of The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land, sought to give a comprehensive view of Israeli society and dispel some of the stereotypes people of have of the country. In her often comedic presentation, one of her most poignant examples of this was the book cover she first received from her publisher at Simon & Shuster, an American jew. That version showed-among other characters-an Arab woman wearing a full burka, and a Chassidic Jewish man bedecked with a huge beard and fur hat. “He looked like he just came from a shtetel in Poland,” she chided. In fact, Rosenthal said that the strict Orthodox rabbinate in Israel is not overly popular with the country’s largely secular population. The interviews she conducted for her book were of soldiers, surfers, Ethiopians, Russians-a healthy cross-section of pretty much any type of person other than politicians. “You can’t understand any country by looking at its politicians,” she said.
Another teach-in speaker was documentary filmmaker Laura Bialis-she recently released Refusenik, a film examining the struggle of Soviet Jews against an oppressive Communist regime-who has first-hand knowledge of one of Israel’s security problems. Having visited the small town of Sderot-the closest Israeli town to Gaza and a frequent recipient of Quassam rocket attacks-the Los Angeles native began shooting footage showing the struggle of its people not merely from the hard news perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, but in terms of a community known for its rich musical and artistic culture. “What I’m trying to do with this film is show this other side of Israel that a lot of people don’t know about and a lot of people don’t see,” she said. “There’s an amazing resilience there-an effort to focus on something [other than war].” Although, as one of the musicians in the film–Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone— notes, the subject matter in lyrics by local artists has become a bit morose as of late. The mood can be heavy and the local economy slow when the frequency of rocket attacks increases, but Bialis said people pour in from all over Israel to boost the economy and show their support. She has found the area to be fascinating, and even managed to fall in love, get married, and move into a house there.
While some of the finer points of Israeli life may be unfamiliar to Americans, one thing encountered on a regular basis here in the U.S. is news about the country. Many newspapers come under fire for publishing editorial material that is either pro- or anti-Israel, and the Los Angeles Times is no exception. L.A. Times op-ed page editor Nicholas Goldberg-who served as Newsday‘s Middle East bureau chief-has worked as a journalist and is Jewish, but often takes heat for some of the op-eds he publishes-most notably ones by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. “It’s a cheap and easy thing for us to say, ‘Well, if they’re complaining, we’re doing the right thing,’ but newspapers have to be careful to pick things that aren’t too outrageous,” said Goldberg, who pointed out that they also run a lot of pieces from the Israeli perspective by authors such as Natan Sheransky and David Grossman. “I think that newspapers make a lot of mistakes, but I’m a big defender of getting to know both sides and letting readers make decisions.”
Goldberg pointed out that American newspapers tend to be much more balanced than European ones, which, although very accurate in their reporting of facts, often define their political stance in news articles. “I have opinions : but what I’ve learned over 20 years as a journalist is to do my best to put my biases aside.” This is a principle he said extends to his selection of op-ed pieces. Goldberg’s candid assessment of a tricky situation was one that teach-in participants could take with them as they mulled over their own personal views of Israel. “It’s harder than you think to get to the bottom of what is a fair way to judge these things without assuming that one side is right,” he said. “In the Middle East, nothing ever started it. There was always a provocation the week before, and it makes it difficult to write about. There is no beginning.” One can only hope that broader, more widespread understanding of Israel and its many challenges will help bring about a peaceful end.