Israel filled me with hope

If I could boil down my emotional experience during the latest Jewish Federation mission to Israel, I would choose “hope.” But I am not trying to force some poetic connection with the translation of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, “The Hope.” No – hope is what I genuinely felt many times during our visit.
Let me share some snapshots of my experiences.
In Tel Aviv, we took a graffiti tour and learned about the amazing illicit artwork created on city walls. Our guide taught us about the messages behind the art. Through their skills, graffiti artists challenge the status quo, question authority and force the viewers out of their comfort zones. But they also remind us what we have in common.
Also in Tel Aviv, I was able to share with representatives of the LGBTQ community a delicious dinner in a residence overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They shared their stories, and I was inspired by their strength, resilience and love of being Jewish. I also learned through them the challenges of being LGBTQ in Israel, and how they continue to find support and encouragement from one another and forge valuable allies throughout the country.
There is no way I could speak about “hope” and not mention the political demonstrations that took place when we were there. The Israelis powerfully expressed their opposition to efforts to change the fundamental democratic nature of their country. And yet they did this in a positive, celebratory way. I am not aware that any of the hundreds of thousands of protesters expressed violence. Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly heard their message.
At the start of the trip, the tour guide on our bus explained that many Israelis are struggling with whether their nation should be “Jewish” or “democratic.” Clearly, a significant segment of the population, if not the majority, want Israel to be a non-theocratic Jewish democratic state. We are watching this struggle in real time.
Another highlight was learning about the Roots program. It is located in Gush Etzion in the West Bank. Roots creates opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to interact and express how they both have intense connections to the land. When we visited with their representatives, we learned how they share their family stories and their often generations-old grief. And yet, despite the violence and pain they have experienced through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they discover what they have in common and how to forge a positive future.
During our time in Israel, we experienced over and over and over how there has been little progress in the “Peace Process.” Nearly 30 years since the Oslo Accords’ famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, there have been many more backward steps than forward steps. One would think that Israelis and Palestinians would give up hope. Not necessarily. Roots taught us that hope is still possible.
As Juan Manuel Santos taught: “One doesn’t make peace with one’s friends. One makes peace with one’s enemies.” At Roots, enemies are sitting down and finding ways to become allies for progress and peace.
I had an intense experience during our trip to Israel. Upon my return, I felt renewed hope for our homeland’s present and future. Without a doubt, Israelis have much to teach Americans about the importance of patience, resilience and remembering what we have in common.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area.

See more stories and photos from Israel at


Add Comment