Facing painful truths leads to deeper love of Israel

Early on in an intimate relationship, we tend to live with an idealized view of our loved one, seeing our beloved as flawless. But as relationships deepen, we need to know the painful truths, including the real imperfections, if we are to build an honest, committed relationship.

The same is true of our relationship with Israel. This summer, my husband and I traveled to Israel with the New Israel Fund to study the state of democracy in Israel.

Since 1979, the NIF has provided literally thousands of nonprofit organizations in Israel with grants, technical assistance and leadership development to serve the country's most vulnerable populations. This study tour introduced us to many of the organizations that receive assistance from the NIF, in its primary areas of concern:

*Civil and human rights

*Economic and social justice

*Religious pluralism and tolerance

We learned many things we wish were not true about Israel, such as the following painful but undeniable facts:

One-third of all Israeli families live below the poverty line. Israel is among the developed nations with the highest gap between rich and poor.

The income of Arab citizens of Israel is one-half the national average. The Israeli government spends less than half as much on each Arab student as on each Jewish student in government-sponsored schools.

The 140,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in government-planned towns lacking basic services such as banks, medical care, public transportation and adequate garbage collection, or worse, in "unrecognized villages" — shanty towns of corrugated tin huts, without government-sponsored electricity or running water.

The recent Ethiopian and Russian immigrants still suffer many social and economic disadvantages.

Only 77 percent of Israeli citizens believe that democracy is the best possible form of government, as compared with 90 percent in 1999.

Despite all these facts, our trip was overwhelmingly inspiring. Why? Because of the extraordinarily devoted, energetic and visionary people we met, staffing a range of projects supported by the NIF, addressing these problems and more in ways that made us proud and grateful.

We were privileged to meet Sari Revkin, the visionary woman who founded Shatil, the umbrella organization that provides direct service to impoverished populations throughout Israel, offering technical support to grassroots organizations, leadership training for community activists and much more.

We were addressed by Alice Shalvi, the matriarch of Jewish feminism in Israel. Originally an Orthodox Jew, she has become a leader in the Conservative movement in Jerusalem, bringing her intellect, passion and prestige to the struggle for Jewish pluralism.

In the Negev, we visited a group of Bedouin women, some in traditional Bedouin dress, who have created Project Rikmah, drawing on women's traditional Bedouin craftsmanship, creating exquisite crafts for sale around the world. In the process, the women experience independent work for the first time, learning business and marketing skills, while discussing health care, domestic violence and the transformative power of education.

At the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, we met with Dan Yakir, the chief council of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, arguing cases with impressive success involving rights of women, single-parent families, people with disabilities, secular Jews seeking civil marriage and Israeli Arab citizens.

We spoke with Marwan Dwairy, an Israeli Arab psychologist at the University of Haifa, who wrote an article for the Arabic press, helping Arabs understand the place of fear in the Jewish psyche, telling us that it is "the Arabs' job to make the Jews feel safe," and that such mutual understanding is essential to the peace for which both Jews and Palestinians yearn.

Awestruck, we listened to Bassam Eid, a prominent human rights activist within the Palestinian community, who protests human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority against its own people. With great passion and genuine sorrow, he told us, "Every loss of human life — whether Jewish or Arab, is a tragedy. We each have our tragedies; let's build a future together."

In a poor Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, we met a group of university students, most of them volunteers, who created and staffed a program to offer academic help, mentoring for children and education for parents. Working in partnership with the local residents, in a spirit of mutuality and respect, the program addresses needs for adequate housing, work with dignity and health care.

My husband asked the students, "Why do you take time out of your studies to do this?" One young man, a master's student in physics, said, "If one of my organs is sick, how can I be well? How could I sleep at night knowing that this neighborhood is here and I did nothing to help?"

The prophet Isaiah says, "Zion shall be redeemed with justice, her repentant ones with righteousness." This trip to Israel taught us what it takes to create a just society, in the midst of extraordinary challenges, and what an evolving national tshuvah, or repentance process looks like. I believe that the prophet Isaiah would be proud.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.