On day one of our summer study tour of Israel with the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC), our group was taken to Israel’s parliament. There, our guide directed us to a line in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Located about two-thirds of the way through the document, the sentence commits the newly formed Jewish state to ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Further, it “guarantee[s] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
As we stood that day in the halls of the Knesset, lawmakers were in the midst of debating the controversial nation-state Law. Now passed, the law downgraded Arabic from its status as an official language and, by calling for a “whole and united Jerusalem,” calls into question the prospect of a two-state solution.
Reading the Declaration of Independence that day, we felt like a voice from the past was speaking to us. It was reminding us, the people of the future Jewish state, that Israel must guarantee equality for all who live on its land – Jewish or Arab, religious or secular, citizen or asylum-seeker.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence, we realized, might be the strongest tool we have to end social, economic and political injustice within Israel today.
We were in Israel for 10 days, part of a Canadian contingent of an international program called the Naomi Chazan Fellowship. Alongside fellows from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, we spent that time meeting with civil society leaders, activists and NGOs across Israel. We witnessed first-hand the work that they do to combat racism, foster shared society and bridge socio-economic, religious and ethnic divides.
We learned about the impact of Israel’s military occupation on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. We listened to Palestinian youths in the West Bank describe obstacles young people in their community face when it comes to accessing secondary and post-secondary education. We met with an asylum seeker from Sudan, who told us of the many difficulties faced by non-Jews seeking asylum in Israel, a country founded by refugees.
We met with organizations like the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which defends civil liberties for all peoples through litigation and public education, and the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC), which opposes gender segregation in the public domain and seeks equal status for all streams of Judaism in Israel. We met with Women of the Wall, a group that courageously fights for women’s equal access to the Kotel and with representatives of ‘Ha’Pardes’, a movement to empower Mizrahi residents of South Tel Aviv.
We met dozens of people who dedicate their lives not just to raising awareness for inequality and discrimination within Israel, but to building a better version of the country. Through numerous walking tours, panel discussions and meetings, we realized that if we want to create lasting social, economic and political change, we must listen to that which is difficult to hear.
As we listened, it solidified in our minds that we can criticize Israel because we care about it. Those people we met are carrying out the work of the Declaration of Independence every day because they desperately want a peaceful, shared society. They do so despite criticism from the government, and from large swathes of the voting population who have, it seems, forgotten the words of the Declaration.
We can’t help but wonder what those who drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, just moments before ushering in Shabbat that Friday in 1948, would say of the inequality found in contemporary Israel. We wonder: would they celebrate an Israel that diminishes the language of another people? Would they celebrate an Israel that continually bows to pressure from its most hardline, right-wing elements; that places in jeopardy the prospect of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs?
The task that lies before us is to bring back to our communities the stories of those we met. In addition to societal challenges and violence, we witnessed great hope in the souls of the people who fight for human and equal rights in Israel. Their hope was not only contagious, it was concrete. There is hope for this country to change, to resolve its longstanding human rights violations.
Hope awakens when we see good people fighting for all inhabitants of Israel, regardless of their religion, race or sex. We promise to support their work and fight alongside them. We promise to do so until Israel becomes a land where all inhabitants can achieve complete and lasting equality.