Commentary: Israel through the eyes of a visitor

April 7, 2008

My wife, Janie, and I made some new friends on our recent trip to Israel, including Moira Carlstedt, president of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership. I happily cede my space this week for her observations of the trip.

It is like any hospital room in Indianapolis-except you can see the Lebanese border from the window, and you stand amid damage from a Hezbollah rocket that tore through that window. And then you understand the need for the underground hospital that serves the entire region.

Nothing puts the experience of Israel into better context than that hospital room in Western Galilee, the abandoned Syrian bunkers on the Golan Heights where land mines hide in the fields, or the Ethiopian Jewish orphans trying to integrate into Israeli society.

Israel is a nation of innovation, dazzling cities and breathtaking landscapes. A nation struggling with issues shared globally: economic development, health care, social services, immigration, political freedom, education and housing. A nation and an entire region struggling with issues of unique complexity often unimaginable to Americans.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis and the Maurer family, with the support of the Jewish Community Relations Council, recently hosted a group of non-Jewish people representing Indianapolis business, religion, not-for-profits and education on a study mission to Israel. The objective was to gain an experiential understanding of the nation and the region. What I discovered among the people we met was a consistent passion and intensity, shared values, and a common humanity that transcends borders, politics and religions.

We had the remarkable opportunity to meet with individuals representing a broad spectrum of thought and belief-from a radical journalist to the former director of the Israeli Defense Force military intelligence to a Muslim Arab-Israeli peace activist dedicated to Arab-Jewish coexistence. It struck me that each individual-Jewish Israeli, Palestinian or Arab Israeli-with whom we met grounded the discussion of his or her viewpoint in the history of his or her people. It was clear they believe we must understand history if we hope to understand their viewpoint relative to religion, politics, the future and security.

This framework-this beginning with history-established perspective and clarity in understanding the differences in religious beliefs and practices-from the ultraorthodox Jew to the conservative Jew to the non-practicing Jew; with respect to the differences in political beliefs-conservative, moderate, liberal; and regarding their different visions of the future. History, religion, politics and the future-every discussion, every nuance, was enveloped within the constant challenge of security.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional intensity is as tangible as the city's ancient buildings. There, Jews pray at the Western Wall, Muslims pray to Allah, and Christians journey along Jesus' paths. From all over the world, people gather to immerse themselves in history and religion-to experience something often profoundly personal and yet convening in a singular palpable passion.

My friend Ron Allen, who was part of our group, observed:

"I am amazed at how persons who hold quite different perspectives treat one another with respect. This is true with regard to both political analysis and to religious expression. ... The Israelis want to live in peace with good qualities of life-and they also want these same things for the Palestinians and the other peoples around them."

Indeed, Arab and Israeli; Jew, Christian and Muslim; businessman, nonprofit leader and politician-all want the same basic things. It's as true in Israel as it is in Indianapolis. We all want safety, peace, a good future for our children and a decent opportunity to enjoy life in old age.

It is unfortunate that the Palestinians and Israelis who are committed to finding a way to live in peace and prosperity-a solution founded on social justice and fairness-routinely are portrayed in the U.S. media as violent people living in a violent nation. The trip requires me to question those images, to explore the challenges, to try to understand the complexities, and to form independent judgments. This gift of knowledge must be embraced. This experiential gift that came from standing in an Israeli hospital and understanding even a glimpse of Israel and the region must be shared.

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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