Opening Dialogue on the Interfaith Trip to Israel

When the El Al jumbo jet carrying forty-five HLS students touched down at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport last month, Tel Aviv was a city on the verge of celebration. Our arrival coincided with the Jewish holiday of Purim, in which Jews are commanded to celebrate in raucous fashion their deliverance from extermination in ancient Persia. It is a commandment the mostly secular young people of Tel Aviv take seriously. By nightfall, the streets would swell with masquerading revelers in a festival of, well, biblical proportions. And this jetlag-defying group of HLS students, embarking together on the first-ever Jewish Law Students Association Interfaith Spring Break Trip to Israel, would be among them.

But the first event of the trip left no time to change out of travel clothes, let alone into costumes. From the airport, it was straight to an Ethiopian restaurant for a traditional dinner with Ethiopian lawyers and law students. Ethiopian Jews began immigrating to Israel through a clandestine rescue effort in the 1980s and have continued to immigrate since. Although the Ethiopian immigrant community in Israel now numbers more than 100,000, it has struggled with the challenges of absorption, including illiteracy, unemployment, and discrimination. In fact, there are only 35 members of the Israeli bar who are of Ethiopian descent, some of whom joined us for this welcome dinner to share their experiences as immigrants, law students, and practicing attorneys in Israel.

The students from Harvard dined with their Israeli counterparts over lentils, vegetables, stewed meats and traditional Ethiopian bread, spongy, pancake-like and slightly tart. And we ate in the traditional way, too-no utensils. The evening’s organizer remarked in her welcome, “I was warned by everyone that Americans would never come anywhere without first taking a shower. You have proved them wrong.” This was the first of many expectations to be upended, and assumptions challenged, during ten days of interfaith dialogue and discovery, sightseeing, and legal discourse. Each of these experiences also contributed to a rare and particular kind of fun: the fun of making new friends at the accelerated, exhilarating pace which traveling together in a faraway country makes possible.

In Tel Aviv, the group toured the ancient port of Jaffa, a hillside artists’ enclave of steep and winding stone pathways just south of the modern city, where we observed our first “unidentified object,” an abandoned bag on a bench. The Israeli soldiers on patrol used a remote-controlled robot to explode the object. It turned out to be harmless, as most “unidentified objects” do. For many of us in the group, though, this permanent security dynamic was one of the most interesting cultural experiences of the trip. Security guards wand visitors as they enter almost any restaurant, shopping center, or pedestrian mall. Young soldiers are also constantly in public view, M-16’s slung casually over their shoulders. (All Israelis are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces when they turn 18.)

Though suicide bombings inside Israel have been extremely rare in the past few years, everywhere in Tel Aviv and in Israel we saw reminders that this tiny nation lives, at all times, on the edge: the still-shuttered Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv where a suicide bomber killed 21 mostly teenaged Israelis in 2001; the once again bustling Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem where in 2001 a suicide bomber killed 15 people; the controversial security barrier that snakes around Jerusalem and virtually the entire West Bank, physically separating Israelis and Palestinians. And yet, it is easy to forget about these things in a city like Tel Aviv, where one can spend a day on a sandy beach or indulge in its fervent nightlife. There is a certain joie de vivre about the place, as if the city wakes up each day relieved and overjoyed anew by the unlikely fact of its own existence.

While in Tel Aviv, we had an opportunity to speak with young Israelis. The conversation was frank and wide-ranging. They spoke about the particular challenges and joys of growing up in a country that is at once so vibrant and also so fraught with tension. We wanted to know how the experience of compulsory military service has shaped them. They spoke of pride in defending their homeland, though they did not always agree with the policies of their government. A young female officer summed up the Israeli experience as one of contradictions-simultaneously secular and religious, ancient and modern, burdened by history but bounding toward the future.

And somehow, she said, it works. If Tel Aviv was our immersion into secular Israel, Jerusalem was a vivid introduction to the religious and political intersections that make this one of the holiest places in the world for three religions, and also one of the most politically and legally complicated.

Though organized by the Jewish Law Students Association with support from the Adelson Family Charitable Foundation, less than half of the participants were Jewish. There were many faiths represented on the trip-Judaism, several denominations of Christianity, Hindu-and this sharing of perspectives and backgrounds made for a visit rich in religious and intellectual dialogue. Our group attended Easter services at the Garden Tomb and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sparking conversations borne of curiosity about one another’s beliefs that continued on the bus and throughout the ten days. Later in the week we attended Shabbat services at the Western Wall, the holiest Jewish site, where these conversations were again renewed. One participant mused at our farewell dinner that the continual process of asking and answering questions helped her understand her own beliefs better, not just her classmates’.

Israel was lush and green in late March, an appropriately fertile setting for legal and political discussion among our diverse group. We toured the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem, where we met with Justice Asher Grunis (and later in Herzliya with former President of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak). Students asked questions about the complex issues facing the Israeli legal system, including the legality of the security fence, targeted assassination of suspected terrorists, and the appropriate limits of the Court’s expansive role in Israeli democracy. We were also fortunate to visit firsthand some of the very sites that came up again and again in our discussions, helping to contextualize Israel’s history and current strategic reality. In addition to our tour of the security barrier, Col. Kobi Merom, a former top commander of the Eastern Region in Northern Israel, led us on a tour and strategic briefing on Israel’s northern border with Syria and Lebanon.

At the Shalem Institute we spoke with a leading Middle East historian, Michael Oren, about the role America has played in shaping the modern Middle East. We also met there with Natan Sharansky, the iconic former Israeli cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, who was imprisoned for ten years in the Soviet Gulag before eventually coming to Israel. More recently, his book “The Case for Democracy” was rumored to be required reading in the Bush White House as its Iraq policies were being shaped. Students engaged Sharansky in a lively discussion about his theory of how free democracies take root, challenging him to reconcile this theory in the abstract with the realities on the ground in Iraq and in the Palestinian Authority.

If there was a single day, though, that captured the variety and self-sustaining energy of the trip, perhaps it was this one: a day that began solemnly at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial and museum of the Holocaust, and continued with a tour of the security fence that provoked substantive debate on the tour bus about Israel’s rights and obligations in erecting this barrier, then on to the fashionable seaside city of Herzliya. There, we participated in a class Alan Dershowitz was teaching to Israeli law students, and the evening ended with a banquet dinner during which Professor Dershowitz sang the Yiddish song “Tum Balalaika,” accompanied by a klezmer band.

In touring this very small but deeply complicated country, our group indeed covered a lot of ground. It was the kind of experience that is uniquely possible in Israel, not yet 60 years old. We saw a youthful nation with an ancient history, where the people are engaged in the soul-searching work of defining their vibrant modern democracy.


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