Reflections: New Gen Activism Fellowship Trip
This July saw our third New Gen fellowship cohort head to Israel for the annual seven day study trip. Thirteen fellows from the UK, Australia, and for the first time the USA, came together to start their year-long exploration of NIF’s work by meeting activists representing 15 of our different grantees. These meetings form the foundation of knowledge and experience to inspire their year of activism and engagement ahead, which also includes building and developing their leadership, activist and ambassadorial skills.
This year’s trip was wide reaching in its scope and full of deep learning from a number of inspiring leaders and activists. We met activists from all NIF’s issue areas, including Shira Ben Sasson (Masorti Movement), Drori Yehoshua (Kiah) & Raluca Ganea (Zazim) as well as Boaz Rakocz, the Director of NIF’s newest project, fact checking organisation ‘The Whistle’, amongst many more. There were fantastic walking tours of Nazareth with Sikkuy, of Hebron with Breaking the Silence, and of the Old City, Mear Shearim, Kikar Tzion, Damascus Gate. That the trip coincided with the recent flare up of tension around the Temple Mount amount only allowed us to have an even deeper reflection on our role as diaspora Jews to support and fight for a more democratic and peaceful Israel. Finally, we met Mickey Gitzin, the new director of NIF in Israel, who inspired us to think deeper about how we really communicate our message at a time when it is harder than ever to encounter people in real life. You can see some photos from the trip here.
As a result, the year ahead holds a lot of opportunities for the fellows, and they are keen to convey New Israel Fund’s message to a wider group than ever before, share more resources, and strengthen the links between old and new generations of NIF supporters in the UK. Tommer, one of this years fellows, reflects on his experiences from the trip in this piece below:
Earlier this year I travelled with almost 200 Jews from around the world to stand in solidarity with Palestinians against the occupation. Together we worked to reclaim the displaced village of Sarura, undertaking nonviolent resistance when faced with military and settler violence and making clear that denying basic human rights to millions of people is neither Jewish nor democratic.
I made the decision to do this based on the deep connection I feel with Israel, a country I grew up visiting, learning about and placing at the heart of my Jewish identity. Yet the more I opened my eyes to the reality of the occupation, the more challenging my relationship to Israel became. It was painful for me to see it oppressing others in my name, so flagrantly violating the values of my religion, and I felt obligated to do everything I could to support activists trying to bring about change.
One way to do this was through physical solidarity, but this is not always practical from the diaspora. Fortunately, organisations like the New Israel Fund provide a powerful alternative. Last month I spent nine days in Israel learning about their work as one of 13 young Activism Fellows from the UK, USA and Australia. Meeting leaders from the movement and the many NGOs it supports we gained a new insight into the strategies being used to unpick Israel’s complex and toxic status quo.
Although it can be hard to look past the occupation, especially when observing Israel from overseas, it does not exist in isolation. There are a range of challenging inequalities and divisions across Israeli society which make it easy for the occupation to continue, and even be ignored altogether. I know this because I’ve experienced them. I used to dismiss supporters of Palestine overseas as ignorant of the reality of Israel, because they didn’t see the daily coexistence between Jews and Arabs which I was party to when I visited. However, I now realise that my experiences of coexistence usually involved purchasing something from an Arab restaurant or shop. There was no parity in our exchanges, and no meaningful conversation. I similarly had never spoken to a member of the ultra-orthodox community, despite seeing them every day while I was there, and politics was so absent from the day-to-day public sphere that I couldn’t know how many people I had spoken to with opinions that differed from mine.
Thankfully there are organisations doing tireless work to amend this, all of which have restored my lost hope that there can be a progressive future for Israel. One example is Sikkuy, a joint Arab and Jewish organisation which fosters interaction between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and ensures both populations are catered for by businesses and public services. Another example is Shacharit, which creates spaces where the four main population groupings in Israeli society – Arabs and secular, national religious and ultra-orthodox Jews – can come together and explore common ground. Morashtenu is an incredible organisation which works to promote a progressive voice in Israel’s large but marginalised Russian-speaking population, while the similarly inspiring Tag Meir challenges the cycle of violence in the region by bringing Jews and Arabs together after terror attacks to undertake acts of solidarity with the victims.
Then there is the direct anti-occupation activism of organisations such as B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organisation, and Breaking the Silence, a collective of IDF veterans who are speaking out about their experiences serving in the occupied territories. These groups are determined to make the occupation part of public discourse in Israel, in an effort to galvanise society against it. The desperate need for this was evident as we sat on a beach in Tel Aviv just hours after being harassed by settlers in Hebron, a city in which entire streets are closed off to Palestinians. This unsettling experience not only gave us an insight into the occupation at its worst, but also how easily shielded most Israelis are from it.
Although none of these initiatives will bring about change alone, they are each making a difference and together offer hope for an Israel where all people are able to live in freedom, equality and dignity. The fact that every single one of these groups has been funded and supported by NIF emphasises why it is doing perhaps the most important work in the diaspora to promote human rights and social justice in the region, and deserves the support of anyone who believes in those causes.
The threat that it poses to the current regressive leadership of Israel is recognised not just by NIF’s supporters but by the Prime Minister himself, who has turned the organisation into a straw man to deflect every criticism of him. Having travelled across the country meeting the determined NIF leaders and grantees who are heading up this fight I know he’s is right to be worried. If everyone who believes that Israel can and should be a better nation stands with the NIF movement, we can make sure that Bibi’s fears become a reality.
Tommer Spence is an NIF New Gen Activism Fellow 2017-18. His twitter handle is @tommerspence.