Abraham Accords show that change is possible

Last month, I traveled with a group of committed pro-Israel advocates from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs board (CIJA) and other Canadian Federations to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. CIJA hosted and organized the trip in celebration of the recent Abraham Accords. I attended as a representative from Edmonton’s Federation. One of my personal motivations for going on this trip was to try to reconcile my firm support for the existence and welfare of the State of Israel with concerns I had about it.

My parents were born before the creation of the State of Israel. Their generation, as well as their parents’, accepted Israel without reservation. To them, the State’s existence was nothing less than a modern miracle.

My children and their cohort are less inclined to accept Israel as it is. They are concerned about it. The primary concern is Israel’s relationship with and treatment of the Palestinians. Also, of concern are minority and religious rights, women’s rights, and the increasingly divisive political rhetoric. While these concerns are legitimate, they are also frequently mischaracterized in public discourse—in particular, the conflict with the Palestinians.

My generation straddles the two. Some share these concerns while others are puzzled by them.  Many are concerned about a trend to a weakening of support for Israel in the North American Jewish community as the torch is passed on to the next generation.

This trip helped to clarify my view on these tensions.

I believe that one can reconcile unreserved support for Israel’s welfare and right to exist with concerns about these issues without betraying one’s priorities and values. To do so one must adjust one’s expectations.

Western society experienced dramatic social change starting in the 1950s. Canadian Jews were raised during these changes, and we are proud of our country’s social progress. However, this change has led to unreasonable expectations about change in the rest of the world.  We were taught that anything is possible, that we can change the world; but we were not prepared for failure or taught patience. When the world fails to meet expectations, as it often does, this leads to frustration, disillusion, and disengagement.

Israel is a particularly poignant example of this. Tension and conflict in the region often lead to violence. We are bombarded with negative news and images. It is a seemingly endless cycle.  It is natural to embrace simplistic explanations and it is easy to view the Israelis and Palestinians through the black-and-white lens of a bully and an underdog.

The issue is complicated by the fact that there is so much false and harmful information about Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Israel’s public detractors are vocal and abundant.  Israel is wrongly labelled an apartheid state and is subjected to a disproportionate level of international criticism and scrutiny. It is repeatedly condemned by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and criticized by human rights organizations. Social media has become an efficient and effective tool for misinformation and disinformation. Simultaneously (and not coincidentally) there has been a rise in antisemitism worldwide. North American and Diaspora Jewish communities are increasingly targets of antisemitic threats, vitriol, and attacks. Young Jews are feeling vulnerable. Being proudly Jewish and advocating for Israel feels increasingly difficult.

Israel is complicated. Some of its problems are typical and shared by many countries while others are unique.  Nearly all of them are exaggerated both by Israelis themselves, a cultural trait, and by the international community—a mix of antisemitism and Israel obsession.  

However, Israel and the region are not static. They are changing, though at times the pace seems too slow. 

It is unreasonable to measure Israel by the standards of Europe or North America. Israel’s history, both ancient and current, is unique. Few people understand this, and sadly, fewer seem to care. Current conditions in Israel are not comparable to any other country.  

Gaza, a narrow strip of land in the southwest, is ruled by Hamas, an ideological, religiously orthodox, authoritarian, terrorist organization. The West Bank (actually located to the East) is a semi-failed state lacking effective governmental control. Both regions are heavily armed.  Palestinian children have been taught hateful and violent rhetoric in school, including the vilification of Jews and Israelis. Attempts are being made to discontinue this practice, but current Palestinian teens and young adults are the product of these lessons. The families of Palestinians who commit terrorist attacks receive compensation that is often tied to the number of people killed. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has a policy of non-cooperation with Israel which contributes to continued poverty and lack of basic services in the West Bank.  Paradoxically, Hamas has been known to cooperate with Israel, at least on supply of basic services.

There is intervention by outside state and non-state actors in both territories, who supply arms and funds, and lend support for or encourage violence against Jews and Israelis. These include Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah, and smaller local jihadist groups. Some funds are used legitimately for local services, while some are used for arms, tunnels to infiltrate Israel, and missiles.

There have been genuine attempts at resolution between Israel and the Palestinians, though with limited success. These include the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995, and the complete unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005. 

Israelis appear to have given up hope of a resolution with the Palestinians in the short term, and it is hard to blame them for this. Israel has made many good faith attempts at peace—evidenced not only by historical attempts, but also by its success in achieving peaceful resolutions with many Arab countries. The list now includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, UAE, Sudan and Bahrain.  Israel also recently negotiated a maritime agreement with Lebanon, despite being in a formal state of war with it. Time and again, Israel has demonstrated a willingness to talk to its Arab neighbours and compromise for peace.

Currently, in the Palestinian Territories, poverty and ideology promote violent terrorist acts, which lead to violent responses. An increase in autonomous armed groups is leading to increasingly violent confrontations with Israel’s army or police.  In East Jerusalem, hundreds of buildings and homes have been constructed without building permits, causing them to be deemed illegal. If a resident of an illegal house commits a violent terrorist act, the house may be ordered to be demolished, a strategy intended to counter the financial incentives given to families of terrorists.

The situation is not hopeless, but it is extremely challenging (the UN representative Tor Wennesland repeatedly referred to it as “superbly challenging”).    

The Abraham Accords is a peace treaty which includes Israel, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. During my visit to the UAE, I witnessed its genuine commitment to tolerance and coexistence between the three Abrahamic faiths:  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  We met with the UAE Minister of State for Tolerance and Coexistence and many other Emiratis, and it appeared to me that they were sincerely committed to this principle. For example, the UAE recently opened an interfaith site on which they built a synagogue, Catholic church and mosque, side by side. Significantly, this project was started prior to the Abraham Accords. The Emiratis view Israelis as being culturally more similar to them than Westerners. They refer to Jews and Emiratis as “people of the desert”.

This Accord shows that positive change is happening. It sets the conditions for more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel. UAE seems determined to lead in this direction.  The two countries (UAE and Israel) have quickly embraced each other. A huge number of Israelis have travelled to UAE since the Accords and are being welcomed. Trade between the countries is growing exponentially. Engagement between the countries is growing quickly at all levels.

Israel is a robust democracy, but democracy is being challenged all over the world, including in Israel. I have confidence Israel will find its balance. Israel is a maturing country.  Its economy is flourishing. Its political and legal systems are undergoing change. Change may be painful but is necessary. Israel’s improved relations with other Arab states will ultimately create conditions which will hopefully lead to a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. It may take time, but I believe it will happen.

In the meantime, we have a choice. We can support Israel on its path to change, or we can join with the chorus of its detractors who aggressively advocate for its delegitimization or even its demise. If we support Israel, we have an opportunity to contribute to its improvement. On our trip we met with eight members of the Knesset, including David Rothman, who is responsible for leading the judicial reforms, Amichai Chikli, Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Eli Cohen, Minister of Foreign Affairs. We engaged in discussion, and sometimes we challenged them. The fact that all of these Knesset members, including influential ministers, took the time to meet with us is evidence to me that, on some level, Israelis care about the opinions of Diaspora Jewry. I am under no illusion that we changed the world, or Israel, through one visit, but I am hopeful that we may have contributed to that change in some way.

There is a concerning lack of room in public discourse for middle ground when it comes to Israel. All public criticism is ammunition for its opponents. Its critics are many, its supporters precious few. We cannot abandon Israel in its time of need, which seems to be all too often.  We must continue to support it and continue to hope and advocate for positive change. Change is unpredictable and frustratingly slow, but it can also occur unexpectedly. So many are trying to influence change to Israel’s detriment. We must try to counter that.

Israel’s issues are complicated, but they are not hopeless. Quite the contrary. Everything about Israel’s survival and success is hopeful.  Many of the people I met, both in the UAE and Israel, have reinforced that view. In my wildest fantasies, I never expected to be part of a delegation of Canadian Jews being welcomed into a Sheikh’s palace in Abu Dhabi and treated as an honoured guest; or to visit an interfaith centre in an Arab country where Jews, Christians and Muslims are welcomed; and then to eat dinner at a kosher restaurant. If those things are possible, anything is possible.