Issues of identity and identification figured prominently and problematically during the course of the day, both for Israeli Arabs and for young American Jews. Judging from how such panelists referred to themselves at the conference, Israeli Arabs identify as "Palestinian citizens of Israel."
Even an Arab professor of law and a vice dean at Hebrew University, Michael Mousa Karayanni, participating in the concluding panel, expressed his difficulty when teaching Israeli legal procedure in referring to "our" (Israeli) law, rather than "your" Jewish law. But he did end with some expression of hope in reporting greater comfort in regarding the Israeli legal system as a common possession after a semester of dialogue with his Jewish students.
The JTA news service exemplified, in its coverage, the discomfort that American Jews feel in listening to such people as Prof. Karayanni. Uriel Heilman (the JTA reporter) quoted Karayanni further:
"I can't say 'our' flag, I can't say 'our' national anthem, I can't say 'our'government, I can't say 'our' president," Karayanni said at Sunday's closing session.
"You talk about compromise," he said, turning to his Jewish co-panelists. "I'm supposed to forget about 1948? I'm supposed to forget about the 70 percent of confiscated Arab lands?"
Heilman went on to point out that, "Karayanni is one of the co-authors of a controversial 2006 document produced by Israeli Arabs called ‘The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,’ which calls for Arab cultural autonomy, Arab veto rights in some government decision-making, the elimination of Jewish character from the anthem and flag, and modifications to immigration laws to eliminate favorable treatment of Jews."
Heilman’s article was NOT a hatchet job; he quoted NIF responses. It happens to be true that Palestinian-Israeli grievances and alienation from Israeli society that they express are difficult to hear and to deal with. But although we do not need to agree with everything they say and do, these are based upon real injuries and constitute significant challenges for Israeli society.
Still, it’s easier for liberals to engage with Jews on Arab grievances than for them to challenge Arabs on their "narrative." For example, I personally found at an NIF event in 2006, that it can be hard to even get Palestinians to acknowledge that their side started the military conflict of ‘47-‘48 that resulted in the "Nakba," their catastrophe. Yet it’s to the NIF’s credit that the Palestinian-Israeli "narrative" is being brought to the attention of Israeli and American Jews.
This closing session, moderated by The Forward editor in chief, JJ Goldberg, was preceded by a short video celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Shatil, described on the NIF’s website as the "Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel."
Shatil has been instrumental in establishing a host of civic rights organizations that attempt to meet the needs of a variety of underprivileged sectors in Israeli society: including Arabs, women, the physically and mentally handicapped.
The video culminated in a memorable scene of a young black-hatted religious individual speaking into a microphone at an outdoor rally. He proclaimed in American-accented English that "the Torah states 36 times ‘not to oppress the stranger.’ We suck at that," he concluded.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this conference was the large presence of young people in their 20s and 30s — a demographic group that Jewish and especially liberal Jewish organizations have had difficulty recruiting in recent years. Both in a panel of young American Jews ("Challenging the Paradigm: Israel’s Place in Contemporary Jewish Identity"), and again in that concluding plenary session, which included 36 year-old Rabbi Felicia Sol of New York’s socially-conscious B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, it was emphasized that the gut emotional attachments to Israel that held true for older generations, does not exist for the young. Speakers saw this as a function both of feeling more secure as American Jews and of having not lived through the traumas and crises experienced during World War II, 1948, 1967 and 1973.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a participant on the "Paradigm" panel, criticized the Hebrew concept of "hasbara" — which literally means "explanation " but connotes public relations or propaganda. Hasbara is a one-way process in which the official line is imparted, rather than initiating a discussion or open-minded inquiry. She identified this latter approach as important in establishing an honest and meaningful relationship, even in teaching "love" for Israel. "What does it mean to teach love?," she asked rhetorically. It’s to teach about "a real place, at a real time, and not to give people only one view."