David Alon is a Jewish History teacher on EIE. Today he writes about the trip the Spring 2016 students took during their last week on EIE.
Israel’s coalition politics is in the midst of an upheaval, and NFTY-EIE was on hand at the Knesset recently to see firsthand how the Israeli multi-party system works for the Jewish state. After four months of intense learning about Jewish history and modern Israel, our EIE students were honored to be hosted in the Knesset by MK Roy Folkman from the centrist Kulanu party. Kulanu is a new party led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon that was created in Nov. 2014 and currently holds ten seats in Israel’s 120 seat legislature.
We arrived at the Knesset on the morning of the perfect political storm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party to bring them into the governing coalition, and decided to give them control over the ministry of defense, sending shockwaves across the political spectrum.
MK Roy Folkman welcomed us into one of the committee meeting halls and personally thanked the students for their commitment and initiative in coming for a high school semester in Israel. A lot of the conversation focused on the economy and strengthening different sectors in Israeli society. Folkman emphasized that his goal is to bridge the social and economic gaps that exist. One example of this trend is the difference in quality and quantity of extra-curricular activities that are available to pupils from different school districts, in particular in Israeli-Arab towns and cities, and in the poorer cities of the country’s periphery. According to Folkman, one of the main goals of the Kulanu party is bring economic relief to the middle class, inspired by Moshe Kahlon’s successful campaign to significantly lower the cost of cell phone service.
MK Folkman said his main message to anyone who wants to get into politics and make a difference, is that he or she must be learn how to ask good questions and that they need to learn the skill of negotiating and building coalitions. Both of these are skills we have tried to work on throughout the EIE semester.
For me, the most pleasant surprise was hearing Folkman say that he and his party are ready to sit down with anyone who shares this vision and is willing to work together for the good of the country. I am more used to Israeli politicians saying that they will never agree to sit in a coalition with such-and-such party, or this person or that person. For this reason, Folkman stressed that he looks forward to working with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, and that the problems of the ultra-Orthodox population are more likely to be resolved with them in the government and not the opposition. Besides the nitty-gritty of Israeli politics, he also explained what his typical work day and work week are like. When the Knesset is in session his time is divided between the main 120-seat plenum and the smaller committee meeting rooms. However, several days a week he is out in the field meeting with constituents or seeing government programs in action first hand. I was especially amused by his observation that for Likud MKs, all Thursdays are “wedding days” devoted to attending weddings of Likud supporters to sew up their support during future party primaries.
The visit to the Knesset was just the beginning of a spectacular three-day tiyul to put the whole four months into perspective. We also devoted some time to understanding the critical issue of water. Israel’s fresh water is supplied by four different components: the national water carrier pumping water out of Lake Kinneret, desalination of salt water from the sea, recycled waste water, and the underground aquifer. EIE students spent an afternoon swimming in the Kinneret, and also did a fun stream hike through Nahal Snir which flows into the Jordan River.
Another critical issue we learned about is the status of the Golan Heights, which came under Israeli control in June 1967. Our visit to the Golan started with a history lesson at Tel Faher which was the site of a major battle in the Six Day War with Syria and to this day remains a symbol of heroism. We also retold here the gripping story of Eli Cohen, Israel’s spy in Damascus in the 1960s. Although he was captured and executed in 1965, the intelligence that he gathered was indispensable to Israel’s victory shortly after in the Six Day War.
The Golan Heights was also the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Yom Kippur War in Oct. 1973. To understand the desperation and heroism of these events, we headed up to the peak of Mount Bental that provides a scenic overlook of Mt. Hermon and the border with Syria. Bental tells the story of Avigdor Kahalani and the 7th tank brigade that stood their ground against the Syrian onslaught until reinforcements could arrive. It is truly one of the most astounding stories of courage ever told.
Of course there is a lot more to Israel than war and conflict, and we went to two other locations to teach about the topic of modern Zionism in the 21st century. One such place is the Olea Essence Olive Oil Press in Katzin, where farmers patented a method to recycle and reuse the olive waste and refuse that come from the process of pressing them into oil. Instead of seeping into the soil and damaging the environment, the olive waste is used in manufacturing cosmetics and skin washes. The Olea Essence company explained that developing Israeli technology and science, and working to protect Israel’s fragile environment is the pinnacle of contemporary Zionism.
Likewise, we also had an in-depth tour of the Naot shoe factory at Kibbutz Naot Mordechai in the Upper Galil. This was eye-opening for me because I have been wearing Naot sandals for years, but to see how they are manufactured was an interesting experience. Not so much because of the machines (although they were cool), but because of the people making them. The factory floor was a true demographic reflection of Israel itself: Jews, Bedouins, Druze, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, religious and secular all working together in a successful enterprise making a fantastic product that is in demand both at home and overseas.
Continuing the theme of getting to know the different segments of Israeli society, we also visited the Israeli Druze village of Ussefiyah situated on top of the Carmel mountain range near Haifa. We were honored to be hosted by a Druze family in their house with a home cooked meal and one of the most spectacular views in the whole country. The EIE students asked a range of intelligent questions about this community that is not well known outside of Israel. I think some of the things that those who aren’t familiar with Israel would be surprised to learn are that the Druze are very patriotic citizens who serve in the IDF (particularly in elite combat units), have been ministers in the government, and see themselves as much a part of society as Jewish Israelis. In fact, there was a huge picture in their house showing David Ben Gurion shaking hands with the leader of the village.
The final stop of the three-day end-of-semester tiyul was the prestigious IDC Herzliya (Inter-Disciplinary Center). Unlike the major universities that have thousands of students, the IDC is modeled after the small private colleges that are abundant in the U.S. It is the only institution in Israel that offers full B.A. and M.A. degrees entirely in English. In fact, quite a few EIE graduates have gone on to get their college degree from the IDC. We were lucky enough to be hosted by EIE Fall 2012 alum Jonathan (Yoni) Neff who explained in detail what it’s like to be an undergrad at the IDC. The highlight of the campus tour was the visit to the communications building where we entered both a radio and television studio. The IDC has its own radio station, and the communications students use the news studio to study every aspect of broadcast journalism.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the final morning of the semester that we spent at Jerusalem’s Har Herzl military cemetery. Among the soldiers who gave their lives to protect Israel, we paid our respects to two American lone soldiers, Michael Levin ז”ל and Max Steinberg ז”ל, as well as visiting the grave of iconic Israeli hero Yoni Netanyahu who led the Entebbe hostage rescue operation in July 1976. I prefer to guide in reverse at Har Herzl and start with the stories of the soldiers, and then finish with the leaders of the nation: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Zev Jabotinksy, and of course Theodor Herzl. I also like mentioning at the grave of former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek that he is the great uncle of two former EIE students (shout out to brother and sister Talia and Amiel Kollek).
As a teacher who has spent almost every day of the last four months with this amazing group of students, I can say that the end-of-semester tiyul is an appropriate send off. It is truly rewarding to see how they have grown and learned and are still thirsty for more knowledge. I am already looking forward to the next semester!
To read more posts from David and his class, go to his class blog, Kitat David.