For 10 days this January, I had the privilege of traveling with a group of students on an educational, cultural and political trip to Israel. The Jewish National Fund organized the trip with the goal of showing the truth about Israel to the next generation of leaders in the United States.
One of the most prevalent claims I heard from activists and members of the media prior to our trip is that Israel is an apartheid state. I quickly realized that anyone who perpetuates this lie is either grossly misinformed or has an agenda.
We visited the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and the Israeli Supreme Court and found that political rights extend to every corner of Israeli society. Arab Muslims hold seats in the Knesset and a seat on the Supreme Court. There are even affirmative action measures in place in the Israeli civil sphere.
In reality, in spite of what we see on television or read in the newspapers here in the U.S., most Israelis — Arabs and Jews alike — live their day-to-day lives in peace as participants in the world’s greatest experiment in coexistence.
However, self-segregation in Israeli society is extremely pervasive.
The United States is no stranger to self-segregation. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lee Siegel bemoaned the “whiteness” of Mitt Romney’s Mormon Church. Fox News commentator Todd Starnes fired back by tweeting, “What are the demographics of Rev. Wright’s congregation?” While Mr. Starnes was pointing out the usual New York Times bias, the deeper issue is that self-segregation continues to stand between us and the “more perfect union” we’ve been pursuing since those words were famously penned in 1787.
While the U.S. has been dealing with this issue for a couple hundred years, in Israel it’s been this way for centuries. Many Arab and Jewish Israelis grow up with little social contact with each other. While they shop in the same markets and vote in the same elections, their social interaction is limited.
Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA, is attacking this problem head-on. “We’re bringing these conflicting cultures together to a place where they can see the humanity in each other,” Hussein said. In the Jerusalem YMCA, hundreds of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis go to school together. In their gym, Muslim women take off their head coverings as they work out side-by-side with Jewish women. Hussein told us the Jerusalem YMCA aspires to “bring up a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis who understand the values of shared society and shared citizenship.”
With programs like this, the Israeli people are striving to achieve the true spirit of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They are not satisfied with equal political rights — they are working to mold the hearts and minds of a new generation to move past their outward differences and judge each other solely by the content of their character. Fittingly, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a Martin Luther King memorial.
Later during our trip, as our bus safely whisked us out of the Israeli-Gaza border town of Sderot, I noticed two words crudely written in English on the inside of one of the bus stop bomb shelters lining the street: “Peace Please.” I imagined it being written in exasperation by a young Israeli student who had just barely made it inside as the sirens blared and the rockets landed.
It’s important for the United States to play an active role in helping these people find a true and lasting peace. But I believe it’s equally important for us here in the U.S. to bridge the gap between cultures in our own country — as the Israelis are trying to do in theirs.
Back at the Jerusalem YMCA, bullet holes from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War still scar the stone columns and entryway. They serve as a constant reminder of how high the stakes are.
Cliff Sims is the founder and editor-in-chief of YellowHammerPolitics.com and chairman of the Alabama College Republicans. His Twitter handle is @Cliff_Sims.