Ruth Nemzoff

Question: What did you do on your winter vacation?

Answer: Okay, so nobody sent in this question, but it seems to be the one everyone is asking me these days. I’m so glad when they ask! It gives me a chance to talk about my trip to Israel and India – the most enlightening experiences I’ve had since I lived in India for two years in the 1960s and since I spent a sabbatical in Israel in the late 1970s. 

I was seeing these countries not only through the eyes of memory, but through the lens of current events, American politics, and the controversy surrounding Medinat Yisrael, the state of Israel. 

As I was packing, my friend who is an ardent supporter of Jewish Voices for Peace said, “Oh, you’re going on one of those brainwashing tours?” I had just informed her that I was to be the resident scholar on the first grandparent-grandchild trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish agency. The trip was a weeklong visit to Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Masada, and Jerusalem. Attendees came from Miami, Cincinnati, and northern New Jersey. They represented modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement, secular Jews, and interfaith families; almost the whole spectrum of American Jewry. Grandparents and grandchildren in each of the three cities had been meeting monthly to learn about various aspects of Judaism and connect with each other before flying across the world together. Additionally, each group communicated over the Internet with a corresponding group in Israel; grandparent/grandchild pairs in Netanya, Yeruchem and Arad. 

It was only a week long, but by the end, every child had grown. They were able to chat with adults who had been strangers only days ago. A peak for me was seeing interdenominational dialogue occur – among middle schoolers! Unprompted, the kids spent one shaleshudis (Saturday afternoon meal) grilling an observant young man on the details of his shabbat practice: “What do you do if it’s almost sunset on Friday and you’re in an airplane and it has to circle?” I was floored. No classroom could have excited children about halachic debates as seeing a peer observe Talmudic dictates – and discuss them!

On the last night, grandchildren were paired with unrelated grandparents to reflect on the trip. They spoke as fellow travelers, not as two separate generations. While traveling, the whole cohort had also learned to consider each others’ needs, regardless of who was a “grown-up” and who was not. On the last day, for example, a granddaughter insisted on helping me with my bag.

Beyond the interpersonal interactions, there was Israel. I do not think it is “brainwashing” to describe the innovation I witnessed in art, in architecture, in archaeology, in museums, in technology. In almost field, Israel was on the cutting edge. Did you know that Israel recycles 85 percent of its water, and 100 percent of its agricultural water? I am convinced that America cannot afford to boycott Israel: We need their ideas. It is chutzpadick (impudent, rude) for Americans to read three news articles and think they understand the conflict better than any lawmaker. 

Those who claim that seeing only the beauty of Israel is brainwashing might want to reexamine their own perspective: Do they visit Rust Belt America? Or do they bring guests to Times Square and Los Angeles and Washington? Do they forget that we shut down our government because of a border dispute? Israel’s politics are complicated, but it is incumbent upon us to look for the full picture, just as we should do at home. Just as America is a divided society where many do not feel their liberal views are represented, the Israeli body politic do not all idolize or even agree with Netanyahu. Interestingly, many Israelis hold conflicting views on American politics. Even those who are pleased with Trump’s support of Israel seem to understand he is a Quixotic leader. 

In Israel and later in India, I was privileged to speak with negotiators of their respective border disputes. Yes – in India too, the talk is of “the situation on the border.” The British left a legacy that keeps on giving. After India, I reconsidered the analogy of Israel as colonialist. The British sowed the seeds for both countries’ ongoing conflicts. The Jewish people have invested in Israel, while the British came to India simply to extract. Any investments they made were for the gain of the mother country. The peacemakers I spoke to are not concerned with who was right and who was wrong. They focus instead on what might work, how we can possibly find common ground. These diplomats look for solutions. They do not come in with preconceived notions about what each group deserves or should give up.

An Indian diplomat startled me with an entirely new concept: Explicit borders do not necessarily lead to peace! The Pakistani-Indian border is a harsh line in the sand, yet is rife with conflict. India’s border with China, however, is calm despite being in dispute: Both sides recognize that at this point, it is better to coexist. Much like families, countries get along through a commitment to shalom bayit, peace in the home, and an understanding that no arrangement is perfect. 

There is so much more to tell about India and Israel. What Israel has accomplished in 70 years – not off the backs of Arabs, but by the sweat of their brow, by innovating, by educating their young – is astonishing. India, too, has progressed, but has so much more left to do. 

When one travels, one meets visitors from around the world. In Eilat, I met a French mother-daughter pair who were considering aliyah because of the fierce anti-Semitism they face at home. Even the airport bus provided opportunities to connect! A young Polish couple approached my husband and me and asked what we appreciated most about Israel. I responded by asking them the same question. They replied, “Yad VaShem,” which led to a conversation about their nation’s leader, President Andrzej Duda, who made it illegal to mention that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. “We dislike Duda,” they said, leading a Brit in the back to pipe up, “Well, we’re about to go over a cliff!” Seems like America and Israel aren’t the only countries which are

divided.

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