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Israel Diary: A Tale of Two Visits

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JERUSALEM -- At 2 a.m. on Friday morning, the streets outside my hotel in Jerusalem were jam-packed with thousands of people making their way to the Wailing Wall where, the day before, I had placed my own folded up prayer -- and where I had to cover my exposed shoulders with a hastily borrowed shawl. What is it about shoulders, in particular, that God would find so disquieting?

Early Friday morning I headed to Tel Aviv to visit the Bialik Rogozin School, an extraordinary example of what is possible with real leadership.

The school has 750 students from 48 countries, including 21 orphans from Darfur. The majority of them come from the poorest parts of Israeli society -- all studying together with stunning results. In Israel as a whole, 46 percent of high school graduates go on to higher education. At the Rogozin School, Martin Karp, of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation that provides a lot of support for the school, told me that figure is 68 percent. "68.6," Karen Tal, the school's director corrected him.

And it is Karen Tal's leadership that is undoubtedly the key to the school's remarkable transformation. Born in Morocco, she took over as director three years ago. When she arrived at the school, it was plagued by every possible problem, including outbreaks of violence and dilapidated surroundings.

But the school I toured with her was immaculate, with students' paintings covering the walls, and new computers throughout. In one classroom, whose occupants looked like a mini-United Nations, kindergarteners were joyfully singing and dancing together. In another, I sat at a table with teenage students telling me their stories. Two sisters had come from Ghana; one boy from Ethiopia; another girl from Georgia; another from the Congo. A girl from Turkey had a particularly sad story, because she and her single mother, who works as a housekeeper, are facing deportation, as they are in Israel illegally. But everyone on the school's board is using all their influence to try to keep the girl and her mother in the country. "It would be so hard for her to go back and try to restart her life in Turkey," Tal told me.

I left Bialik Rogozin energized and inspired. So it was particularly jarring to drive straight from the school to the West Bank to see the Jewish settlements that have become a flashpoint of the stalled peace process.

The security wall. The roadblocks and barbed wire. The separate roads that the Palestinians have to use. The checkpoints and "buffer zones." The very large, sprawling, and very permanent-looking Israeli settlements carved out on Palestinian land. No wonder Palestinians feel like strangers in their own land.

Taking it all in, it's hard not to feel weighed down by a sense of hopelessness over the divisions that seem even more entrenched and permanent than the intruding settlements themselves.

Standing at one of the checkpoints, my mind went back to the school. There, the differences between nationalities felt utterly superficial, almost irrelevant. Here, the differences felt vast and unbridgeable.

Yet, in this land of miracles, we can still imagine the emergence of the kind of leadership that can transform both old hatreds and the facts on the ground.