Wednesday in the Knesset, Yad Vashem, and Tmol Shilshom

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On Wednesday, we woke up early for a breakfast that was much better than any breakfast I've ever had at a hotel. I'm not used to a lot of dairy-free and vegetarian options, usually hotel breakfast for me is a mealy apple or a bruised banana. THIS breakfast, on the other hand, had an entire table dedicated to pareve pastries and fresh bread, another table for fish and vegetables, another table for fruit, another table for pancakes, a Turkish coffee station, and a waiter walking around with drip coffee. Drip coffee may sound unremarkable enough, unless you've been in Israel before, AKA the land of milk and instant coffee. I'm a bit of a snob, so I was thrilled. There was also a place for fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices that you could take in a bottle out of the dining area for later. Actually, in hindsight, that may not have been the intent, but for me it was the outcome!

After breakfast, we went to meet with Jonathan Schachter, US native and Senior Policy Advisor to Netanyahu. He gave us the PM's perspective on foreign policy, particularly Iran and Palestine. The administration feels that Iran's nuclear threat is very urgent, although it's not the focus of Israeli news. Mr. Schachter also discussed the controversial nation-state bill, which he defended as a jumping-off point for negotiations rather than a dictum.

After this meeting we boarded the bus and went to the Knesset building! It's a gorgeous stone structure with small gardens outside. 

Our first meeting was with MK (Member of the Knesset) Hilik Bar from the Labor Party. He focused on the income disparity between rich and poor, rising real estate prices, and Labor's successful bill that raised minimum wage. His vision of Israel involves less privatization and more socialism. 

Next, we heard from MK Dov Lipman, another US native and a member of Yesh Atid/"There is a Future". He talked about five things that Yesh Atid accomplished in the last parliamentary session: 1. The draft law for the Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) Jews 2. Forty-two general studies schools were opened in Haredi communities 3. Training for jobs have been provided for the Haredi 4. Women's rights were advanced in a few ways, one of which is that now women must be represented on the committee to choose the Beit Din, or Rabbinical Court 5. Budget for 2015 allocated funds to re-do the health system which is buckling under pressure from medical tourists. It also included more funding for education, senior citizens, and police, all without raising taxes. 

A note of explanation for readers that may not be completely entrenched in inter-Judaic politics: Haredi Jews are a fast-growing portion of Israel's population, and they are instantly recognizable with their big black hats and long overcoats. They didn't used to serve in the military, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis of both sexes, because they can't touch, or in some cases even walk next to, members of the opposite sex. They have their own designated schools where they speak Yiddish in conversation and Hebrew only for biblical studies. They don't study science or math beyond the basics, which makes it really difficult for them to integrate into contemporary Jewish society. And frankly, as a group they receive a lot of welfare money, which is the motivation for the job training programs. 

Mr. Lipman had an American optimism that was really touching, he told us that even though Israel's problems look impossible now, when we examine the past and we see how far the world has come, miracles happen all the time. 

Our next meeting was with MK Nachman Shai of Labor, who had some grim statistics to share about Israel's economic situation. 20% of Senior Citizens are below the poverty line, as are one million children. Twenty families control 40% of the economy. I looked it up later, and Israel and the US are #4 and #5 of OECD countries in terms of income inequality. Also, of the top 5, we're the only two that are getting worse, not better. Well done!

After lunch, we moved to a bigger room with round-table seating and a microphone at every chair. Our final meeting was with Deputy Foreign Minister Zachi HaNegbi. He spoke briefly about Syria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and of course Palestine. 

Following this meeting, the Frank Fellows broke with the JCPA to go on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum of Israel. I had never been to the museum before, but we received an excellent tour from our very knowledgable guide, David Eisenstadt. The story is familiar, but the narrative is unique to the space. The building is in the shape of a triangle, representing half of a star of David, the other half of which was destroyed by the Holocaust. From a bird's eye view, it looks like a scar, to represent the scar that the Holocaust has left on the Jewish people. Also, even while rejecting the notion that Israel is a result of the Holocaust, it was inspiring to step out onto the balcony at the end of the exhibits and see the nation-state of Israel, a place where Jews can come to work and grow and make a future together. Honestly, it would make for a better story if Israel weren't still constantly under attack, but what can you do?

One story in particular remained with me: there was a ghetto being used by the Nazis as kind of a 'Propaganda ghetto.' Things were still terrible there, but a group of educators were working to make it better: one woman packed art supplies into her single suitcase instead of extra clothes, and she used the supplies to help the children express themselves with art therapy. Another young adult formed a kind of youth group, so the children could have a sense of pride and togetherness even with the horrors that surrounded them. As an educator, I hope that I can remember these stories going forward, and focus on the value of what I'm doing instead of thinking about the sacrifices I'm making to do it. 

After Yad Vashem we stopped back at the hotel to rejoin the JCPA contingency, and from there we went to dinner at David Ehrlich's bookstore/café Tmol Shilshom. This is a famous hangout for the literatti of Israel; the atmosphere is intimate with books crammed into every conceivable corner. My kind of place!

     Co-owner David Ehrlich


David Ehrlich spoke briefly at the end of our meal about his experiences in the space, as well as the struggle to stay in business with the current economic situation and security risks last Summer. He shared a memory of an Ultra-Orthodox couple on their first and only date prior to marriage who didn't leave the restaurant despite the sirens this Summer, a story that was both romantic and heart-breaking. Only in Israel.

Afterwards, we took the bus back to the hotel, where I slept for as many hours as possible before another extraordinary breakfast and another day of learning. 

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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