Rolling up our sleeves: The New Gen Fellowship Study Tour 2018/19

“You can either wring your hands, or you can roll up your sleeves”. This call to action from renowned Israeli activist Anat Hoffman, of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and Women of the Wall, resonated with her audience, the NIF New Gen Activism Fellows.

Sixteen highly motivated young people from the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia gathered in Israel last month to spend eight days meeting Israeli activists and gaining in an-depth insight into NIF’s work. After the trip, all would return home to spend the next year raising awareness of this work among their peers. As a fellow last year, and an NIF staff member this year, I know how life-changing the fellowship can be.

Through our meetings and tours with around 40 activists, we learnt not only about their individual issue areas, but about how their struggles intersect: When Mizrachi Jews (those from middle-eastern countries) still feel the effects of decades of institutionalised discrimination, why would they vote for the left-wing political parties responsible for the situation? If Palestinian citizens of Israel are unequal under the law, how can there be a truly shared society? In the absence of a shared society, how can the Jewish left and Palestinian citizens of Israel see each other as potential partners? Yet without such a partnership, the prospects for change are bleak – as we learned, the only times since 1977 that the left has won elections has been when they form coalitions with the Arab parties.

Our eight-day journey took us through what felt like different worlds, often just a short drive away from each other: Jewish and religious West Jerusalem, Palestinian East Jerusalem, Bedouin villages under threat of demolition, development towns trying to move on from a history of deprivation, bewildering Hebron, glamorous North Tel Aviv and struggling South Tel Aviv.

We were in Israel at a difficult time. The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza was much in our thoughts in the lead up to the trip. Two activists from the Gaza-focused NGO Gisha talked us through how the Israeli blockade, stepped up on the day of our meeting, affects daily life in the strip. The controversial and discriminatory Nation State Law passed whilst we were in Israel; we were briefed on the law by a lobbyist from the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and many of us attended a demonstration against the law organised by Omdim B’Yachad (Standing Together). With guide Eran Tzidkiyahu we saw the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan Al Akhmar which is due to demolished this summer to allow for settlement expansion, and, from viewpoints high above the surrounding land, were able to understand the wider geo-political implications of the proposed demolitions and expansions.

Each day brought its challenges and its inspirations, but this was never more stark than on our trip to Hebron with Breaking the Silence. We were ambushed and harassed by settlers from the start of the tour: they drowned out our guide by playing music from a huge speaker; whistled incessantly in front of her face; shouted and talked over her; followed us wherever we walked; tried to block our path and even hosed us with water. UK fellow Tash Lever put together a montage showing what we experienced. Yet the settlers failed in their efforts to prevent us seeing and learning about the reality of occupation in Hebron – the segregated streets, the Palestinian doors welded shut, the checkpoints, the restrictions on daily life. Ultimately, the bravery and conviction of our guide, Merphie, who refused to be intimidated into silence, inspired us all.

We learned and saw a huge amount, but, as guide Eran Tzidkiyahu told us, the situation in Israel does not simply come down to facts, but to values. If we identify basic values, such as equality, and build from that, we will follow the right course. The combination of shared values and a strong understanding the complexities and inter-connections of Israeli society means our fellows are now well-equipped to act as NIF ambassadors back home. As one fellow put it at the end of the trip “There are issues that I care about now that I didn’t even know existed! All I want to talk about now to anyone is the situation in Israel!”.

The NIF New Gen Activism Fellowship is a unique opportunity for British Jews in their 20s and 30s who are passionate about human rights, democracy and equality in Israel to channel their values into meaningful action. The programme involves an eight day immersive trip to Israel meeting incredible Israeli activists and gaining a deeper understanding of the issues facing Israeli society. On returning to the UK, fellows act as ambassadors for NIF by organising events, speaking out, campaigning and networking. More information is available here. If you would be interested in joining us next year as part of the 2019/2020 Fellowship programme, please get in touch with Anna Roiser on anna@uknif.org.

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