The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge / Samantha Sisisky, Yahel Social Change Program Participant

My experience with Yahel continues to inspire and challenge me everyday.  When I got to Israel in September, I knew I wanted to learn more about this country, but I’m not sure if I really knew what I was getting into.  My eyes have been opened to some problematic parts of living here, but more often I see the bright spots, the hope for a better future.  I figured out a few years ago that my future lies within the Jewish community, although I’m still not sure in what capacity that may be.  As time goes on and as I learn more, the answer becomes a bit clearer.  All I know for sure is that I want to make this world a little bit better, not worse.

In February, the entire Yahel group went on a 5 day seminar to the Negev.  While there, we hiked in the desert, stayed on the kibbutz where Ben-Gurion lived (Sde Boker) and learned about some southern development towns.  For me, and for many of my fellow Yahelnikim, the most powerful part of our seminar was our time with the Bedouin community.  For those who don’t know, the Bedouins are an indigenous Arabic population living throughout the Middle East, including Israel. There are about 150,000 or so Bedouins currently living in Israel, mostly concentrated in the Negev, the southern desert area of Israel. Yes, they were here before the state of Israel was formed, and they are full citizens of the state now. However, their full citizenship does not necessarily mean equality. When we learned about Ben-Gurion and his vision during our seminar, someone asked our tour guide what he thought of the Bedouins. Our tour guide simply answered, “He didn’t see them.” Ben-Gurion had this grand vision for cultivating the desert and making it a hospitable and thriving place because when he first saw it, he saw emptiness. He didn’t see the people who were already living there.

This mentality seems to still exist today. The Israeli government has tried several times to control the Bedouin population and centralize it into cities and population centers. The government established several townships specifically meant for Bedouin population. However, there are still over 50 Bedouin villages. We stayed in one of the seven recognized villages one night, Qasr al-Sir. These villages are recognized by the Israeli government and therefore have basic services such as water, electricity and sewage. However, it is still a far cry from most towns in Israel, even the small town of Gedera. It was a strange juxtaposition to see satellite TV dishes and unpaved roads in the same village. We slept in a tent and enjoyed dinner and breakfast cooked by a local women’s catering company. We then went to an unrecognized village (there are about 43) the next day, and the situation seemed grim. They do not have water, electricity or garbage collection provided by the government, and the unemployment rates are very high. We spoke with one of the leaders of the village who was very frustrated with the Israeli government. They were fighting for recognition, but the community leaders often lack  the political savvy, knowledge or experience to successfully navigate the Israeli government’s bureaucracy.  The entire experience was very hard to reconcile.

The Bedouin tent experience is a quintessential part of Birthright, but this was no Birthright experience at all. I’m wondering if a Jewish state means a state that is only for Jews. That’s not the reality here, and it’s never going to be; the Jewish state needs to be a state for all its citizens, not just its Jewish ones. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: the best way to support Israel is to be critical and help make change.

I’m reading the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer. He has dedicated his life to helping the poorest of the poor in Haiti, treating them for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. I’m inspired by his life and work but at the same time very daunted. He has committed all his time to doing good, and he’s actually making a difference and where am I? I don’t have a Harvard Medical School degree, so I can’t cure people of TB. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do to make this world a better place, not a worse one. I think it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed because there is just so much wrong and injustice in this world, but I’m trying to see the bright spots, the good people, that are turning things around. I want to be one of those people. As Paul Farmer said, “I’ve never known despair and I don’t think I ever will.”

So this is my little way of trying to make things better. I don’t know what I can do to make things better in Israel, but at least I can spread some awareness to some people and maybe get the wheels in your mind turning. Our trip was led and organized by a group called Bustan (click the name for more info), and they really did an amazing job of showing us a complete picture of the situation and how they are trying to help (including their women employment development, like the catering company that cooked for us).

The idea of pursuing social change can be scary. I didn’t realize that until this year, but I also didn’t realize that that was exactly what I want and need to do. In what capacity, I’m not sure yet, but I’m figuring it out. There’s a Hebrew song that I’ve known since I was a kid, but the words have finally kicked in:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר – לא לפחד כלל

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to despair at all.

It’s actually a pretty catchy song with a great message–the Jews really knew how to do it back in the day. I’m also learning the song in Amharic!

I’ll end by recalling the Exodus story that Jews just recently retold at the Passover Seder.  I believe the story resonates with Jews in many ways.  Some can take away from it that we retell the story every year to remind ourselves of the bitterness of our enslavement and to prevent it from ever happening to us again.  We as a Jewish people must remain strong and having a Jewish state to call our own is important in ensuring our freedom.  On the other hand, we can also realize that this bondage is not something that any people would want to endure.  Exodus 23:9 reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  I think for a long time, the fear of being the “stranger” once again has influenced the actions and reactions of the Jewish people and state.  I hope that now, Jews can lead the way in preventing injustice throughout the world, to Jews and non-Jews alike.

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