My last day in Israel was a whirlwind of visits, as I tried to pack as much in as I could before having to head back home.
First stop was breakfast with Dror Etkes. A former coordinator for Peace Now's settlement monitoring project, he now directs the Land Advocacy Project for a group called Yesh Din. The group's name, as Dror told me, means "there is law." Like everything else here, "din" has two meanings: "law" in Hebrew, "religion" in Arabic.
"We see our role as law enforcement in the West Bank around land issues," Dror told me as he showed me with maps the ways in which land has been used by the Israeli government to move into the West Bank. According to Yesh Din, 30 percent of the land being used for the settlements is land the government considers to be private. And yet, according to Dror, there is no government agency that oversees the legal issues regarding the settlement land. Yesh Din is attempting to fill that void with legal challenges to force greater accountability.
From there, it was on to brunch -- like the Greeks, the Israelis and Palestinians do everything over food -- at the home of Erel Margalit, the founder of one of Israel's biggest venture capital firms, Jerusalem Venture Partners. He lives right next to where John the Baptist was born -- the Middle East equivalent of having a celebrity on your street.
Israel is one of the great digital powerhouses. And some of that is thanks to Erel Margalit. Prior to Jerusalem Venture Partners, Margalit served as Director of Business Development under Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem. During this time, he helped bring more than 70 high-tech and new media companies into one of the world's oldest cities. Now he continues to help that sector thrive with his company JVP, which focuses on new media, animation and gaming.
And like almost every Israeli parent I met, he is deeply connected to the Israeli state through his children -- in his case three daughters, one of whom is in the army, with another about to join her.
Of course, after brunch, what's next but...lunch. For that, I went to the home of prolific author and thinker Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Gordis' most recent book title sums up his life's work: Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. Gathered around the table were his wife and children. Rabbi Gordis, with one daughter just out of the army and a son and future son-in-law currently serving, told me how betrayed many Israelis felt by the West's reaction to Israel's incursion into Gaza last year. This sense of abandonment became even more intense, the rabbi said, with the release last week of the report by the UN fact-finding mission chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone. The report claimed to have found "strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Gaza conflict."
But Rabbi Gordis saw the report as completely ignoring what had led Israel to take action: rocket attacks that had been going on for years since Israel pulled out of Gaza. "As a result of the ongoing attacks," Gordis told me, "many children hadn't slept outside of their parents' bedroom for years, and twelve year-olds were still wetting the bed. The United Nation report does not take into account what it was like having rockets launched from Gaza on a daily basis for years. There don't have to be heavy casualties for there to be terrible day-to-day human costs."
"In 2000 we had promised my younger son that by the time he's of age to go to into the army, he won't have to," the Rabbi continued. " We were wrong."
From there it was on to tea at the famous American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, site of many high level meetings among Palestinian leaders. Here, in a beautiful courtyard, I met with two Palestinian women, Ruba Abdel Hadi and Molly Toomey, working on a project called Rawabi, a $500 million planned community that promises to provide affordable housing for up to 40,000 Palestinians and include banks, shops, arts venues and a hospital. "It doesn't take more than ten or fifteen minutes to get here from where I live in Ramallah," Ruba, who heads marketing for the project, told me, "but I allowed two hours because you never know what you are going to encounter at the checkpoints."
Next up, a meeting with Elias Zananiri, a former spokesman for Mohammed Dahlan, the one time head of security forces under Arafat. Just as the Rabbi had been so eloquent about life under the threat of missile attacks, so was Zananiri on life under the daily hardships and humiliations of checkpoints in the West Bank. That is why he's using his background as a journalist to try to bridge the gap between the two realities by setting up a private satellite television station, Palestine Tomorrow, which will serve as an alternative to state controlled media and those controlled by partisan entities like Hamas.
As he wrote in July:
"Such a station can also play a very significant role in bridging gaps and mending fences with the 'enemy/neighbour' next door. For years, the Israeli public has been subjected to one kind of Palestinian media discourse, one that focuses more on the conflict and less on its resolution. In my opinion, most of the efforts made over the past years to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have failed only because of the lack of understanding between the two nations... Palestinians need a professional media outlet that tells their Israeli neighbours that across the Green Line, the Separation Barrier or the Israeli army checkpoints lives a nation that aspires to freedom and liberty no less than the Israelis themselves."
Headed toward the same goal, but by a very different route, is Frédéric Brenner, an amazing photographer and anthropologist. Brenner is in the middle of a five year-long venture called "Israel: Portrait of a Work in Progress." He wants people to see a different Israel -- literally. To accomplish this, he brings photographers to Israel for six-month residencies, with the mandate to "look beyond the dominant political narrative and to explore the complexity of the place and resonance for people around the world -- not to judge, but to question and reveal."
And that's exactly what the photos do. In a meeting that was far too short, Brenner told me: "In order to go beyond the dual narrative of victimhood, we need a poetic perspective and we want to capture it in photographs. We have so many different peoples living together in this land. We want the greatest photographers in the world to come here and use their photography as a tool of social anthropology. The goal is to foster a dialogue beyond the political narrative to move beyond the dual perspective."
My final meeting in Jerusalem was with Mikhael Manekin, a former officer in the Israeli infantry. We met at 8 o'clock, after sundown, because he was observing Shabbat. "My bearing witness to what is happening," he said "is an outgrowth of my religious principles."
What he's bearing witness to is what is happening in the occupied territories. As a member of the group Breaking the Silence, Manekin helps collect accounts of soldiers who have served in the Second Intifadah. As he wrote about the Gaza incursion on HuffPost:
"Soldiers experienced a huge disconnect between what they saw and did on the ground, and the claims, made by senior officers, that Israel has the most moral army in the world. As long as commanders continue to deny or dissemble about what happened, Israel's troops are left with two options: not to speak about what they saw, doing what is possible to shield those who gave the orders, or to break their silence and be accused of lying and betrayal."
By providing a safe harbor for those who choose to tell what happened, Manekin and Break the Silence are helping to document what this conflict is doing to both sides.
On my way to the airport in Tel Aviv, I stopped at the Dallal Restaurant for dinner with Gidi Grinstein and his wife, and my friend Dan Adler, an LA based entrepreneur and former CAA executive, who was also flying back to the U.S. Grinstein is the founder of the Reut Institute, which he describes as "a non-partisan non-profit innovative policy group designed to provide real-time long-term strategic decision-support to the Government of Israel." Funded entirely by private donations, Reut gives its services to the government pro bono.
"We don't provide the answers," he told me, "we frame the questions and help decision makers abandon old paradigms that no longer work and refocus their thinking."
To help identify these old paradigms and move beyond them, I have offered all these voices a platform on HuffPost -- so that the conversation can continue.
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