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Dear Friends,

Since returning from my three weeks in Israel last month, I’ve been asked a number of questions by multiple people. I thought I might use this Shabbat message to share and answer some of them.

Question: How was the weather?
Answer: It was hot!

Question: How was your apartment?
Answer: It was on the shabby side. (The old adage, “You get what you pay for…” could not have been more true.)

Question: How was the food?
Answer: I am continually amazed by the fact that Israel has developed a world-class culinary culture. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, however. Israel is a small, diverse country of immigrants. Each person coming to the country brought their traditions and the mixing of culinary styles has yielded some of the most interesting and rich culinary offerings anywhere.

Question: How did we get around?
Answer: Despite the heat we spent a great deal of time walking. In addition, Israel has made a huge investment in public and “micro” transportation. The bus and rail system is clean, inexpensive and efficient. By leveraging technology they have removed the need to use cash. In addition, the app used to pay for tickets also lets you know when the bus or train is going to arrive, and then using GPS, lets you track your progress. This system alone is helping to address some of the congestion in major cities. In addition, Tel Aviv in particular has invested in a system that lets you use your smartphone to unlock one of the electric scooters found on many street corners, ride it to your destination, and then leave it on the street for the next rider. Specialized bike and scooter lanes on many streets allow you to ride with greater safety. Most days, we used these scooters at least once.

Question: Did you feel safe?
Answer: ABSOLUTELY. There was not a single moment, even when we were at demonstrations with 150,000 of our closest friends, when we had even a moment’s concern for our wellbeing. Even when we walked through the alleys of Jaffa, a predominantly Arab-Israeli city, we had zero concerns. I took the bus and train to Jerusalem one day and found myself a bit perplexed by the directions. At various times during the day I was helped by an American who had made Aliyah some years ago; young, Orthodox Yemenite teens, and an Arab-Israeli family that was returning home to Jerusalem after a short beach vacation in Tel Aviv. In addition, only after returning home did I realize that for three weeks I didn’t even THINK about the possibility of encountering gun violence.

Question: How was it being there during such a period of social upheaval?
Answer: The feeling in Israel isn’t anything like American media reports. Our Israeli friends are justifiably concerned about what Netanyahu’s extremist coalition is trying to ram down their throats. At the same time, they are continuing to live their lives. The cafes were packed, there were days when there were few empty chairs at the beach, and life felt “normal.” (As normal as life in Israel ever is.) There were thousands of demonstrators at each of the four demonstrations I attended. Even there the tone wasn’t one of violence or aggression, but instead I felt profound patriotism and a commitment to guarantee rights for all Israeli citizens. The demonstrators don’t WANT chaos and their (mostly) peaceful demeanor speaks to their goal to stop this assault on democracy and reestablish the “live and let live” approach that had taken hold in Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities.

Question: Is Israel actually an apartheid state?
Answer: Israel has lots of issues, but apartheid is not one of them.

One example: we spent some time each day at the beach by the Hilton Hotel, and when you first get there you are greeted by a huge pride flag. On any given day the beach was packed with individuals, couples and families. Some of them were observant Jews. The men wore kippot and the women largely remained covered. Others were secular Israeli Jews, many of whom seem to have employed dental floss as the main material for their bathing suits. There were white Jews, brown Jews and black Jews. And many of the couples were interracial. Still others were Israeli Arabs and the married women wore hijabs. There was no separate seating on the beach and at no time did we observe any tension. The Arabs and Jews largely kept to themselves. When they did interact, the interactions we saw were polite and respectful.

There is no doubt that Israel, like every country, has major social issues that need to be addressed. And while day to day social inequities exist, from a legal standpoint Israeli Arabs have full rights and protections. The potential loss of that is, in fact, one of the central concerns of those demonstrating against the current regime.

There is no doubt in my mind that a two-state solution is the best resolution of the current conflict. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian citizenry deserve nothing less. Unfortunately, with the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership that isn’t possible in the short-term. But apartheid is a racial social ill and the conflict is religious, political and tribal. It isn’t centered on race. To apply Western/American categories to the current conflicts in Israel and in the territories is intellectually—and factually—inaccurate.

My point is this. The questions I’ve been asked since returning are largely the result of the impression members of our community have gotten from the American media. The Israel I saw during my time there and the picture painted for the members of our community have little in common. One cannot draw accurate conclusions about Israel and what is happening based on the reporting we get here. It is why I would encourage everyone to stop paying attention to the US media on Israel and begin reading Israel’s own news sources such as I24, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. You will quickly see that debate and disagreement are alive and well in Israel. It just doesn’t look anything like what we have been told.

I would welcome conversation on any or all of these thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen