Recently, our congregation Sukkat Shalom brought to Juneau a very special young man from Israel to spend several days speaking about Israel and educating people about the challenges of the Middle East from his perspective as an Israeli citizen. Ran Bar Yoshafat is serving as an “ambassador” for Israel through an organization called Stand With Us. He has spent the last five months speaking at schools, campuses, places of worship and many other venues in advocacy of Israel. In these talks he has tried to convey the diversity of Israel’s democracy and disagreement over policy, such as settlement on the West Bank, while arguing strongly against those who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation.
As you can imagine, given the highly politically charged views on the Middle East, Yoshafat has faced much debate and criticism as he has presented before various audiences. During his visit here, Yoshafat had many interesting encounters with folks who challenged him with questions and opinions. Those debates and encounters were all for the good, since debate is a way we can express different points of view on the critical issues we face.
But one event during his visit stood out as something more than a debate about the Middle East Conflict, a real encounter between two people who live out this conflict on different sides. At the suggestion of Rev. Tari Stage-Harvey of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, an event was planned that focused on a conversation between Yoshafat and Nadeen Alshaer, a Palestinian exchange student who is spending the year at Thunder Mountain High School. The program was geared toward teenagers but was also witnessed by many adults who were welcome to observe the conversation between an Israeli and a Palestinian.
This was a brave initiative, especially in light of recent polling in Israel and the West Bank that reveals widespread pessimism about peace among large percentages of Israelis and Palestinians. We were obviously concerned that the evening would be filled with tension and might add to the discouragement felt by many who are concerned about events in the Middle East.
But it did not turn out that way at all. Stage-Harvey prepared questions that allowed Yoshafat and Alshaer to share a lot about their daily lives. The initial questions were designed to give people a sense of the reality of growing up in Israel and in the West Bank: Describe the neighborhood where you live. What would a normal meal be for you? What do you think would seem strange to American teenagers if they came to visit you? What would you be most excited about to show a visitor?
The questions and resulting answers were very informative to the guests, but it was clear that Yoshafat and Alshaer were very moved to find out how much of their daily life was similar and recognizable to each other. They enjoyed many of the same foods, watched common TV shows, shared similar religious values. Someone observed that it took being in Juneau to enable them to meet each other and to transcend the huge political distance that separates them, despite the fact one lives in Tel Aviv and the other in Bethlehem, a one-hour drive.
Later questions dealt with more of the difficulties and discomforts: Are there any misconceptions, myths or stereotypes about your country or culture that people outside your culture believe to be true? What is at the core of your religious faith? What other perspectives on religion do you come in contact with on a regular basis? What is your greatest fear?
These questions elicited honest and painful responses, but the key to the evening was sharing, listening and learning. Alshaer admitted that she had never met an Israeli outside the role of a soldier or a settler. While Yoshafat had Palestinian friends as a child, his most recent encounters with Palestinians as a public ambassador for Israel were adversarial. This interaction was different because there was much more listening and heightened awareness. It was clear that Alshaer and Yoshafat were moved by their encounter with each other. They continued to talk with each other privately for an hour after the program ended.
For myself I found the evening to offer hope and some illumination in the face of an intractable international conflict. I am happy that Juneau could be a place which allowed this type of encounter to take place and that small seed for peace was planted between these two very fine young people.
• Gartenberg is the rabbi at Juneau’s congregation Sukkat Shalom.