In May 2016, I was selected along with 23 other college professors from across the United States to participate in a 10-day Faculty Fellowship Institute sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The program links scholars from diverse disciplines with Israeli counterparts at major institutions for the purpose of initiating exchanges and collaborations.
During this visit, I met with professionals and experts involved in government, industry, education, media and other sectors to understand the many facets of Israel’s evolving national and international policies.
My specific research and academic focus is psychosocial epidemiology relating to the interrelation of behavioral and social factors that impact prostate cancer survivors. Moreover, these exploratory meetings with Israeli researchers were primarily aimed at probable interventions for different populations of prostate cancer patients, defining research questions and publishing data that can possibly lead to organizational changes in health delivery. Along the way, I gained a deeper awareness of the many challenges faced by the country and the creativity, spirit and ingenuity that Israelis bring to tackling these issues.
Much to my surprise, this trip became much more than an academic exercise. I gained a new appreciation of Israel’s culture and rich history that make this land such a special place. Despite the social and political tensions, I saw an enormous opportunity for a generation of leaders to go the extra step to maintain a Jewish state. I realized that although land is important, peace represents a sacred value that is more important than land.
This was a major takeaway for me.
As a direct result of this experience, I plan to organize educational and cultural exchange trips to Israel starting with my own community, a congregation of African American Jews in Philadelphia, and in cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Charlotte.
This will not only help to break down racial and cultural stereotypes that divide the Jewish community but will also advance solidarity and ultimately strengthen the State of Israel. Additionally, I plan to organize seminars and symposia that rebuff vestiges of anti-Semitism on college campuses in the Philadelphia region. In addition to the above, I have been involved with a local effort of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) to combat anti-Semitism on campuses in the greater Philadelphia area. To that end, I am already working on a program at my own institution, Bryn Mawr college, that will address the debate about Israel on campus.
There are several projects and initiatives currently taking place in Israel that will seldom reach the general populace. One such initiative takes place at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology through a program called “Engineers Without Borders,” providing clean water along with the infrastructure for sustainable engineering projects in countries like Ethiopia. The International Center for Agricultural Training program, through support from the Foreign Ministry, is another program that provides agricultural training for over 1,000 students hailing from southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Philippines, Vietnam, Jordan, Tibet and Cambodia.
On another note, I must say that being able to view Gaza from an Israeli military checkpoint was quite unnerving, with the notion that a rocket attack could occur at any time and that we had approximately 15 seconds to find safety. I wondered what it must be like to live under the constant threat of attack and at that moment cherished the freedom that I so often take for granted in the US. I also need to acknowledge the fine work that JNF is doing to enhance the quality of life for Israelis. This was clearly exemplified when we had an opportunity to visit one of JNF’s funded projects, a modern community center for children.
Beyond all of the tours, lectures and research initiatives, it was perhaps my visit to the Western Wall where my mind shifted to those sacred words expressed in the Torah, “vanatati sholom be’aretz,” “I will provide peace in the land.” In the final analysis the pursuit of peace is the only solution.
A culture of fear must be overcome by a creating a culture of hope. The central issue as I see it is how much land will go to the Palestinians, not whether there should be a Palestinian state. This will require the moral courage and visionary leadership reminiscent of Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandella, Yitzhak Rabin and Elie Wiesel.
As we embark on this phase of the 21st century, the question posed by Hillel in the First Century BCE remains apropos: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
The author is a professor at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research and an affiliate professor at the University of Haifa.