Today’s participant blog post comes from Rebecca Garfinkel, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. The group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Rebecca’s personal travel blog, which can be found here.
Welcome to the launch my of new coexistence project!!! Today’s topic: pluralism (it’s rad). Despite being a Jewish state, Israel is a bastion of religious and ethnic diversity; this week, I was lucky to get to know some of Israel’s minority groups a bit more intimately.
Pluralism is familiar to most Americans. The United States is an incredible amalgamation of different races, religions, ethnicities, and identities—call it a melting pot, a mosaic, but either way we can be proud of our diverse nation. And, because of the rights decreed by the 1st amendment, various identities live amongst one another with the freedom to express their differences and share their similarities. Even within certain religions, Americans enjoy a wide variety of pluralistic expression; for example, American Jews can belong to one of several religious camps including Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, and Reconstructionist.
As I said, even though Israel is defined by its Jewishness, I continue to be astounded by the diversity of this country and the ability of different groups to coexist. Last week Yahel spent five days in Israel’s north, and our first stop was the Druze Village of Yanuch. We entered the village hesitant, unsure of what we’d find, but just a day later were reluctant to leave this beautiful, peaceful place.
The Druze religion, which emerged out of the Abrahamic tradition, is a monotheistic faith that distinguishes itself from the three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity— mostly by keeping the main tenets of the faith secret. The Druze community is comprised of only about 800,000 people throughout the world-about 20% of these are Arabs who live in Israel. Being Druze is a choice—at the age of fifteen, kids are offered the option to become religious or remain secular. However, both religious and secular Druzim live together in small villages, with no separation between those who practice and those who don’t. They are also intensely nationalistic; a Druze will go to battle on the part of the nation in which he lives, sometimes even against soldiers of his own religion. In the Israeli wars or 1948 and 1967, the Druzim of Israel fought against their fellow Arabs, choosing to ally with their nationality instead.
I came into Yanuch with all the assumptions you may also have about a remote village in the hills of the Galilee that practices an ancient religion. But what I found was so different, and so much more meaningful. We spent the first evening at a community center for teens that houses a non-profit Ofakim L’Atid—literally, Horizons of the Future. Our hosts welcomed us with open arms, offering us coffee and tea and Druze pita—a thin, fried pita folded over leaves from a za’atar plant. We even had a small jam session where we played music and danced. At night, I attended dinner with my host family for the night. My fifteen year old host sister, Sahara, showed me around and I was surprised to find her just like any fifteen year old girl I had ever met—obsessed with Justin Bieber, better than me at Instagram, and a kind big sister to her eleven year old brother. But she was also much more mature than I think I was at fifteen. She introduced me to her culture and faith gracefully, but with conviction, and she expressed an interest in America and the West without denouncing her roots. I found this was the case with the teen boys at the community center too. They struck an incredible balance between tradition and modernity, suggesting to me why this small religion has thrived for so long.
The next day we shared in another Druze tradition: a visit to the village olive groves. Each family has their own grove of trees, and every fall they visit to pick the olives and trim the trees. They then take the olives back to the village, where they use one of three community olive oil presses to make olive oil for the year. Not only were the groves a gorgeous part of the landscape, but they were yet another reminder of the steadfast tradition of this religion.
This is how they sort the olives from accompanying leaves and twigs. The olives roll down the grate into a bucket while the debris gets trapped in the steel cage.
After an outstanding, overwhelming, gut-splitting lunch at my host family’s house, Yahel headed farther north to a pluralistic kibbutz called Kibbutz Hannaton. A note for those who thought the last sentence was a typo: a kibbutz is an agricultural community in Israel that is governed based on socialist ideology. Kibbutzim emerged when Europeans came to Israel in the early 20th century to escape World War I and set out to create a Jewish homeland. Kibbutz workers live in private homes but eat, study, and work together on the community farm. Kibbutzim are responsible for the majority of Israel’s agricultural production, but in recent years have increasingly been privatized as Israelis seek a more capitalist lifestyle in their homes and workplaces.
Hannaton is one of those kibbutzim that has recently been privatized, but in the past decade has seen a resurgence of young Israeli families coming to live in a shared community. They no longer farm the land or eat in a common dining hall, but they send their kids to the kibbutz school and make major decisions as a community. This is where pluralism comes in. As I mentioned, Judaism is defined by a spectrum of observance when it comes to religion. Some are strictly secular; some go to synagogue but not observe Shabbat (a day of rest); others will carefully follow every rule of Shabbat. Hannaton is unique because it houses all types of Jews, and allows for every form of religious expression. For example, public spaces such as the pool, garden, and synagogue observe the most strict rules of Shabbat, but inside the home, anything goes.
This coexistence, like most, is not easy. While at Hannaton we interviewed a panel of residents who were of varying levels of religiousness. They all cited instances of religious conflict, mostly having to do with education—when opening their kindergarten, there was intense disagreement over whether the school should be secular or religious. The issue was decided by a democratic vote, leaving many in the minority unhappy. But they emphasized that this kind of struggle was why they chose Hannaton. They valued the opportunity to be part of a diverse community, one that did not value one type of Jew over another. And, because it is privatized, Hannaton no longer values one type of work over another; community members work in a variety of fields, from medicine to law to education and yes, still agriculture. The important thing is no longer that everyone contribute to the kibbutz with labor, but that they contribute their time and energy to building a strong community.
These are just two examples of how coexistence plays out successfully. But I believe they can be guides for coexistence efforts to come. The Druze are a peaceful people that cherish community above all else, and for the most part, keep to themselves in small villages. But they espouse intense nationalistic values, and give their lives to keep Israel—or wherever they live—safe and successful. In return, the Druze live in peace and prosperity, incurring the benefits like all Israeli citizens, regardless of if they are Jewish or not. And on the other hand, Hannaton residents also represent diverse beliefs but, by virtue of the community in which they live, must overcome religious conflict for the good of the group. By putting coexistence above self-interest, they find ways to make pluralism work.
Both communities make sacrifices for coexistence; that is the nature of the beauty (and beast) we call diversity. But in doing so, they find incredible success in a shared dynamic. Throughout the trip, I was struck by the humility and sheer, unabashed honesty that each community had in sharing their struggles. The individual recognized that his identity was not the only one, and that even though he lived in a community, he did not have to compromise his values in order to allow others to fulfill theirs. When exactly did we forget this?
Whenever it was in our history, I’m thankful that we have communities like Yanuch and Hannaton to offer a reminder.