By Valerie Arkoosh and Ken Lawrence
Three weeks ago, on the final day of Passover, we watched anti-Semitism rear its ugly head in a violent and despicable attack against Jews at a synagogue outside San Diego.
The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported an alarming uptick of anti-Semitic assaults in Pennsylvania this past year, and our local communities continue to be affected by hate speech and Nazi graffiti.
This anti-Semitism appears on both sides of the political spectrum, and much of the time it’s intertwined with anti-Israel sentiments. After recently taking our first trip to Israel, on a government leaders’ mission with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, we now truly understand both the miracle of a Jewish state in its ancestral homeland and the continued vulnerability of its citizens who just last week were yet again under siege.
When people talk about Israel, you often hear that it’s a place you can’t truly understand unless you visit, and we are honored to have the opportunity to share our experience.
Walking the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, the epicenter of the Abrahamic faiths, is incredibly moving. To see so many peoples worshipping in their own traditions, in their own houses of worship, inevitably reminds us of our individuality and universality. We walked through the Damascus Gate listening to the Muslim call to prayer; we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christian tradition teaches that Jesus was crucified and buried; and we proceeded to the Western Wall, where Jews have prayed for thousands of years since the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Israel is also a nation constantly under threat. Throughout our seven-day tour of the region, we came to appreciate Israel’s need to be constantly vigilant of security concerns. In the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s partnership region of Netivot and Sdot Negev on the Gaza border, we visited an emergency center where workers are on alert to keep residents safe. In the North, with Lebanon and Syria just across the border, we participated in a role-playing exercise to understand the complexity of the challenges of responding to military threats in a region where Iran is actively seeking Israel’s demise.
The fact that Israel has thrived and prospered despite the constant threat of violence and terrorism is a true credit to the spirit of its people. It’s common to think of Israel as simply a Jewish nation for European refugees, but its similarities to our community here in the Greater Philadelphia region are striking. It’s filled with diverse individuals and communities who are both proud of their unique heritage and proud to be Israeli citizens. We were particularly moved by our meeting with the Syrian Druze population near Mount Hermon and with Olim B’Yachad, an organization devoted to integrating the Ethiopian Jewish community into Israeli society.
As we celebrate Israel’s 71st birthday, we cannot ignore the difficult reality of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in Gaza. The dream of a democratic Jewish state, living side by side in peace with the Palestinian nation, has not yet come to fruition and the debate here at home over the conflict continues to be divisive and sometimes hateful. As we continue to talk about Israel and Palestine, we must not lose sight of the ultimate goal which is enduring peace.
On our trip, we stood in a field in a town near Gaza, which had last year been devastated by burning kites sent across the border. As we surveyed the scorched fields, we saw that brilliant red poppy flowers were beginning to bloom, brightening a ravaged landscape and showing the world that beauty can come out of even the worst trauma. It’s symbolic of Israel itself, a nation founded following the tragic suffering of its people that has become, in 71 short years, a beacon of democracy and hope.
Valerie Arkoosh is the chair and Ken Lawrence Jr. is the vice chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.