Teeth for Peace

Teeth for Peace

We can all make our own special contributions to foster goodwill and understanding.I never thought peace was around the corner when I left North America for Israel back in 1969. But, like everyone, I hoped that one day…

Thirty-nine years have passed, and I’m still dreaming.

I’m a big believer in small. Not all of us are government ministers, but we can all make minor contributions to foster goodwill and understanding. Mine is in the area of children and dental care.

Twelve years ago we began a project at Tel Aviv University of reaching out to educate Jewish and Arab children about the importance of oral hygiene. Initially, we brought in busloads of children from Jaffa and Bedouin settlements for a dental ‘fun day’. They received gifts (not sweets!), had their teeth examined by our senior dental students and faculty, and were taught about the importance of taking care of their teeth. To keep them amused, I developed a play called The Witch and the Toothbrush in which a witch with ugly teeth turns a sassy girl into a toothbrush. The kids, their parents and teachers played the various roles. The spell is reversed only when a young boy learns to brush his teeth properly.

With donations from Ms. Sonia Braverman (LA) and the Arison Foundation, we were able to turn the play into a movie starring the great Israeli comedian Dudu Dotan (this was the last movie he ever made; unfortunately he died at the age of 54, several months later). The movie, available in Hebrew on Youtube was later translated into Arabic, thanks to the help of a prominent dentist, Dr. Bukhari, from Jaffa who did specialist training at Tel Aviv University, along with our students. Both versions are now being watched by children around the world.

In addition, my first children’s book (Bacteria Galore by Sunday at Four) was translated into Arabic and 1,000 books were donated to schools here and in the Gaza Strip (I still have the thank you letter from the UN). The English version of the book (and the Witch and the Toothbrush story) are available on www.meltells.com, a website which I have set up for kids around the world (it’s in English, but I have plans for Hebrew, Arabic and other languages too). Many of the books deal with dental subjects (What to do with a used toothbrush, The amazing tooth fairy), others deal with a variety of health and growing up issues.

Will these reaching out efforts make a difference? Perhaps a small one. I have been to Jordan twice trying to foster peace through teeth. I remember a conversation with a senior military official there who initially found it difficult to even strike up a conversation with an Israeli. At the end of our talk, I hope he came away with a more positive attitude.

One step at a time

Two Israeli-Arab women are undertaking national service as volunteers at the Emek Medical Center, despite hostility from their peers.I want to share a story with you. I do this to show you certain realities of our every day lives in Israel that you would otherwise not be aware of. I also do this so that you will not lose hope – even in the face of atrocities, existential dangers and blatant evil behavior. One step at a time is how we will get from here to there.

Israel is not the easiest place to live and maintain one’s optimism. Fortunately, I represent an institution that re-energizes me every day and allows me the privilege to observe, at eye-level, people making an effort to get along with one another – despite the maelstrom of hate swirling around us.

Political hatred between Jews and Arabs runs very deep and ultimate reconciliation will need to come from an equally deep place from within us all. To reach that place is a painstakingly slow process that requires awareness and the willingness to focus on something positive. There are negative, evil forces continually grabbing at the ankles of anyone trying to move ahead in a conciliatory manner. Without forward momentum, we will be doomed to repeat history’s most deadly errors and remain stuck where we are.

I just met two young women who fit within the complex incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is Israel. They are Suha Rahmoun, a 19-year-old Christian Arab from upper Nazareth and Rozan Haja, a 19-year-old Muslim from lower Nazareth. They both have chosen to perform national service as volunteers within our hospital.

National service is offered to those young citizens who do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces for one reason or another. Completion of one or two years service is rewarded by proportionate monetary grants like those offered to soldiers who complete their military service. Participants also earn a modest salary during their work period.

The two young women came to us via Shlomit, Israel’s largest national service organization serving the Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze and Jewish populations that assists 2,500 young people annually to serve and benefit from national service. The majority of young Arabs choose not to become part of this network, due to complex social, religious, nationalistic or other reasons, thus limiting their inclusion into mainstream Israel. That is why I am sharing the story of Suha and Rozan with you.

They learned about national service from their family and friends and, to the dismay of their peers, decided to join. Initially the girls were challenged by their circle of friends as to why they joined, but their determination to continue won the day.

Rozan explained, “Some of my friends stayed away from me, while others remained close. I believe in what I’m doing and it gives me more hope for the future.”

Suha recalled how she was challenged by an Arab bank teller as to why she was serving and only earning a sixth of what she could earn in other jobs; “I answered him that I am helping people and that makes me feel good about myself. My parents support me and that is what is important.”

Suha is working in the adult Oncology Department as a secretary and has much contact with patients, both Jews and Arabs. It hurts her to see young and old suffering and that has made a deep impression on understanding her own mortality. The positive feedback she receives from patients and staff has proven the correctness of her decision to serve.

Rozan, whose mother is a nurse, is working in the EMC Genetics Institute. She wants to study medicine and her experiences here as a secretary and translator during medical consultations have provided a firm foundation upon which she plans to build.

She claims that patients (Jews and Arabs) are encouraged to see a young Muslim woman working with Jews and this has given her renewed hope for the future. Despite the early social pressure that Rozan experienced, she says, “If you believe in what you are doing, then others will accept it and move on.”

Will young Suha and Rozan working with the Jews in EMC change the geo-political face of the Middle East? Of course not. Will it change anything? It has for me and others. Together, we’ve taken another few steps. These young women have discovered that place deep within themselves that holds the secret to living in Israel with mutual respect and dignity.

The point being … it is possible.

When mistakes are worth making

What did Israel prove in the recent prisoner exchange with Hizbullah? It taught Israel’s kids that we may not know how to end this war, but we do know how to take care of them.For some strange reason, I remember the scene with clarity. I was in the kitchen, early on a Friday afternoon about a month ago, cooking Shabbat dinner. Micha, our youngest, now 15, was hanging out in the living room. The radio was on in the background, and on the hour, the news came on. It was over in minutes, and then the music returned.

I hadn’t really paid attention to the news, but Micha apparently had. “Do you think we’re ever going to get Gilad Shalit back?” he asked. Without even looking at him, I said, without even thinking, “Of course we are. Definitely.”

“You don’t know that,” a different voice piped in. Now, I looked up. Avi, his older brother, was unexpectedly home. “We may get him back, and we may not. How can you possibly say that we definitely will?” But the conversation was over. Micha, overjoyed to see Avi, had quickly followed his brother upstairs, and I was left alone in the kitchen. So I never got to answer Avi.

But had he pressed, and had Micha not been around, I would have said to him, “Why did I say that? Because when he hears the news each and every day, the only thing that your brother thinks about is the fact that you’re about to get drafted. And he’s beyond worried; he’s panicked. Because he worships the ground you walk on. And he needs to believe, to know. He needs to believe that you’re going to be OK. And he wants to know that though he lives in a country that asks its kids to do everything, to commit everything, that country also knows that it owes them everything in return. And getting them home – no matter what has happened to them – is part of that.”

I never said any of that to Avi, but I recalled that conversation several times during this agonizing week of prisoner exchanges, of returned coffins, of funerals expected but still tear-stained, of Hizbullah celebrations and of all the columnists who insist that the trade was a terrible idea, that you don’t trade Samir Kuntar for two dead bodies, that they were “deeply ashamed to be an Israeli [and] not very proud of being a Jew either,” that we’ve weakened our bargaining position in the future, and, according to Rabbi Menachem Froman, that we’ve even made peace more difficult to attain, that Israel is committing suicide, and that we have now officially given the Hizbullah the crown of victory in the Second Lebanon War.

So, in the face of all the good arguments about how no self-respecting country trades almost 200 dead bodies and several living terrorists including Samir Kuntar (who, we should recall, shot a man at point blank range in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by smashing her skull against a rock with the butt of his rifle – and all this at the ripe old age of 17) for two soldiers who were almost certainly dead, how does one justify this decision? Wasn’t it certainly a mistake?

Yes, in strategic terms, it was probably a mistake. But sometimes mistakes are worth making. Take the Disengagement. It is now clear that the Disengagement from Gaza was a horrifying, costly and still painful mistake. But – and I realize that this is not a popular position – it was a mistake that Israel needed to make. It was the mistake that proved, once and for all, that the enemies we face have no interest in a state of their own. They just want to destroy ours. That is what Israelis learned, now without a doubt, as a result of the Disengagement. There’s almost no one left around here myopic enough to imagine even for an instant that further retreats will get us peace. OK, there are still a few armchair peace-niks in the States, insisting that there is simply no conflict that cannot be resolved. But here? Precisely the opposite. Now we know that the right was correct – further retreats will only embolden our enemies. They’ll demand more. And more. Until we’re gone.

The benefits of that lesson are understandably of no consolation to the families who paid so dearly in the summer of 2005, who are still living in temporary housing, whose marriages didn’t survive, whose livelihoods have never been restored, whose children hate the country that did that to their parents – but despite all that, the Disengagement was probably a horrifying mistake that Israel needed to make. For now we know, even those of us (and I include myself) who were naïve enough to imagine something else. Peace is not around the corner. Peace is not a year or two away. Peace is not possible. Not now. Not a year from now. Not a decade from now. Because their issue isn’t a Palestinian State; it’s the end of the Jewish one. We learned that through the mistake we made in 2005, a mistake that we probably needed to make.

And that’s why we had to make the trade this week. Yes, according to a variety of strategic criteria, the trade was problematic. It may raise the price for Gilad Shalit (not that those negotiations have been going anywhere, of course). It may affect future prisoners of war.

But if it was a mistake, it was a calculated mistake, a mistake well worth making. It was a mistake worth making when we think about what is the real challenge facing Israel. The challenge facing Israel isn’t to win the war against the Palestinians. The war can’t be won. We can’t eradicate them, and they won’t accept our being here. The challenge that Israel faces is not to move towards peace. Peace can’t be had. No – the challenge facing Israel is to learn how to live in perpetual, never-ending war, and in the face of that, to flourish, and to be a country that our kids still want to defend. And that is what we did this week.

I didn’t watch much of the Hizbullah celebration on television. I just couldn’t stomach it. I watched enough, though, to see the crowd cheering a man whose main accomplishment in life has been smashing a girl’s skull with his rifle – after he made her watch while he killed her father. I watched enough to hear about how Mahmoud Abbas – our alleged peace partner – congratulated the same Kuntar on his release. I watched enough to chuckle at the sight of Kuntar in a decorated Hizbullah uniform – even though Hizbullah didn’t even exist when he perpetrated his murders and was captured. I watched enough to be reminded of what (the word “who” somehow doesn’t feel appropriate) it is that we’re still fighting.

But I’ll confess to having watched more than my share of the Israeli side. On the morning of the trade, I woke up and like many Israelis, I thought to myself, “Who knows, maybe all the intelligence reports are wrong. Perhaps one of them will walk across the border, or maybe still be on a stretcher.” Maybe. This is a county that doesn’t easily give up on hope. Our anthem, after all, says od lo aveda tikvateinu – “Our hope is not yet lost.” o I watched the live feed that morning, waiting along with the rest of this breathless nation, until we saw the two black coffins.

And I watched the soldiers standing at attention – and weeping – as the bodies were transported into Israeli trucks and driven into Israel. I watched the thousands of people who, the next day, lined the roads on the way to the cemeteries. I watched a country that is about life, and yes, even love, not about the celebration of death and hatred.

We did the right thing. We gave Karnit Goldwasser her life back. We gave Udi and Eldad the burial they deserved. We gave their parents some certainty, and with it, the hope that maybe, just maybe, they, too, can start to live again, even with the searing pain that will never subside. And perhaps most importantly, we showed the next generation of kids who will go off to defend this place that this is not a country about calculus, but about soul. We showed them what it is to love. We showed them that we’ll get them back. No matter what.

And I was proud, not ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed to be Israeli. I wasn’t ashamed to be a Jew. We proved to our kids once again that we’re the kind of country that’s worth defending.

There are those who claim that by making this trade, we’ve now formally admitted that Hizbullah won the Second Lebanon War. But, really, was there anyone who did not already know that? Have we forgotten the Winograd Commission and its two devastating reports about the government’s conduct of the war? Have we forgotten the report that showed that, weeks before Udi and Eldad were killed, the army knew that the reservists they were sending there were sitting ducks, but that no changes in deployment were made? Have we forgotten the IDF Chief of Staff who left the War Room in the first hours of the war to go sell part of his stock portfolio? Have we forgotten the most cynical of political arrangements that got us as a Defense Minister a labor organizer who didn’t even pretend to know the first thing about military matters, but who still insisted on playing a role in the conduct of the war? Have we forgotten the mayors of some towns in the North who fled their own cities when the rockets started to fall? Have we forgotten the horrific non-use and then misuse of ground troops, the arrogance of a former Air Force commander who imagined that he’d win the war from the air? Have we really forgotten already how badly we lost? Does anyone really imagine that this trade gives them the victory? Please.

We lost. We knew that already. What we did this week is that we did right by the families who paid the price. We showed that at the end of the day, it’s not only strategic calculus that matters in this country. There will be other ways to get our deterrent edge back. We’ll get around to that; there’s sadly no way that Hamas in the West, Hizbullah in the North, Syria to the east of them and Iran off in the distance will not force us to. We’ll attend to that in due course.

But in the meantime, we showed ourselves once again that this country is about soul. They won, and we lost. They celebrated, and we buried. They cheered, and we wept. And I’d rather be one of us, any day.

Wednesday night, we drove Micha to the airport to drop him off for his flight to the States. The radio was on during the entire drive, and we listened to the interviews with people who’d known Udi and Eldad, the constant updates on the plans for the two funerals to be held the following day. “I feel bad being excited about going on vacation,” he said to us on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. “It’s a sad day here.”

“Yes,” we told him, “it’s a sad day, but it’s OK for you to be excited. Going to America is a big deal.” He didn’t say anything. We got off at the exit for the airport, pulled up to the security checkpoint, still surrounded by all those guys with the submachine guns at the ready, because the war’s not over and it’s not going to be. I turned off the radio so I could talk to the young woman manning the checkpoint. After a few quick words, we were ushered through.

It was quiet in the car. We followed the access road to the departure terminal, each lost in our own thoughts. I don’t know what Micha was thinking. But I’m pretty sure that it was about the two soldiers. About the funerals the next day. About his brother. And about America.

We pulled to the curb, still not saying anything. I stopped the car, and said to him, “OK, buddy, let’s go.” Micha looked at me. “I’m really going to miss this country,” he said.

I was stunned. Not, “I’m going to miss you,” but “I’m going to miss this country.” And then, if I’d had any doubt before, I knew. We did the right thing. If we made a mistake, we made the mistake that we just needed to make We taught our kids that we may not know how to end this war, but we do know how to take care of them.

And he taught us, too. He reminded us that even the kids here understand what an extraordinary country it is that they call home. That this is sometimes a scary place. But that it’s also a country that a teenager knows he can love, that he’s going to miss and that one day, he’ll defend.

In the end, that’s what matter most. Even on the saddest of days. Especially on the saddest of days.

Printed by courtesy of Daniel Gordis.

Saving Jerusalem

It’s time to turn Jerusalem into a city that can lead the world – in innovation, culture and growth.Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, is the curator of many historical treasures and a focal point that attracts Jews and non-Jews alike throughout the world. Jerusalem also serves as the seat of Israel’s governmental authorities and national institutions, and a center for research and philanthropic institutes from all over the world. Jerusalem is characterized as a “scholar’s city”, a center for higher education and scientific research, with special emphasis placed on medicine and biotechnology. In spite of these advantages, of all Israel’s larger cities, Jerusalem is the poorest and its public image is on a downward spiral.

The city’s deteriorating economic situation over the last three decades is the key reason for the negative migration of its Zionistic, younger and stronger population, which in turn has aggravated the economic situation and developed into a vicious circle. Just between years 2003-6, the balance in negative migration has stood at 24,000 and a total of 64,900 people have left the city during these years.

It is important to note that most of those leaving the city are well-educated young adults up to the age of 34, both secular and National Religious and belonging to the middle-to-upper socio-economic level. The main reason for their departure is a lack of employment options. Their departure is an influencing factor in the lowering of the general standard of living.

Despite the comparative prosperity enjoyed by many Israelis over the last few years, the continuing economic weakness of Jerusalem indicates that urgent and vigorous action is needed to reverse the existing trend and to develop the economy of the city. This will help halt the negative migration of the more established families and will encourage young people and public servants to make the decision to live in the city and its surroundings.

Not only a city, a metropolis

So what should be done to change these current trends in the status of Jerusalem? In my opinion, we have to focus on employment development and on perceiving Jerusalem not only as a city, but as a metropolis.

The Jerusalem metropolis is comprised of Gush-Etzion to the south of Jerusalem, the Edumim area to the east, Mevaseret-Tzion and its surroundings to the west and of the area to the north of the city. Viewing these areas as part of the metropolis can enable new solutions to two of the main problems the city is currently facing. First, it will increase the city’s land reserves, thus lowering the skyrocketing housing prices and increasing the reserves for industry and tourism. Second, it will create more employment options for young people.

Regarding Employment Development, we need to specialize in three clusters in which Jerusalem possesses a competitive advantage: tourism and culture, medicine and biotechnology, and outsourcing.

Jerusalem possesses unique historical assets that are over 3,000 years old which have the potential for economic development. Therefore, Jerusalem has to re-brand itself as a magnet to tourists and as a source of inspiration to the Jewish nation – as a “light unto the nations”.

A “brand” like Jerusalem can bring more than 10 million tourists annually within a decade, but in order to achieve that, the city must develop suitable infrastructure. Also, it has to develop unique and unforgettable tourism experiences, which are ideological, spiritual and historical and that connect the past, present and future. This can be achieved by significantly increasing the city’s investments in arts and crafts, improving and upgrading the services available to tourists, and supporting international conferences in those spheres where the city has a competitive edge, and by re-planning ancient Jerusalem.

In the fields of medicine and biotechnology, Jerusalem has to brand itself as a city that is a world leader in specific medical areas where there is a clear competitive edge. This can be achieved by development in fields like: stem cell research, cardiology, fertility, cancer research and orthopedics.

In addition, there should be development in specialist fields. This should include importing leading international medical specialists, supplying government and municipal incentives that will translate into significant investments, and developing medical tourism and medical conferences in these fields.

Jerusalem can develop a flourishing industry built around outsourcing, a sphere in which the city’s population certainly has an international competitive edge. Outsourcing has huge employment opportunities, with enormous potential for future growth.

Develop jobs

Jerusalem is blessed with quality manpower which can offer competitive prices in the international arena, but first we need to develop 20,000 jobs for a wide range of Jerusalem’s population who are multilingual.

Secondly, we need to assist in stabilizing Jerusalem’s economy at a time of crisis. This can be achieved if we will focus on three areas: setting up an outsourcing center in the following niche markets: medicine, finance, law, accounting, computer programming, etc; aligning government incentives with employer and entrepreneur requirements in order to set up outsourcing centers in Jerusalem; marketing Jerusalem internationally as a preferential place for outsourcing.

For many years, too many people have been discussing how we should divide Jerusalem. I have always believed – especially in light of the fact that we have no real partner with whom to discuss peace – that the discussions about Jerusalem should not be about how to divide the city, but rather how to build and strengthen it.

The Jerusalem of today and of future generations must be a city that can lead: as a leader in innovation, a leader in culture and a leader in growth. Jerusalem’s ability to successfully meet the challenges it faces is largely dependent upon developing the city’s economy, and our ability to make the city flourish.

We all have an obligation to help Jerusalem stride forward, to turn the city into a model to be emulated by other cities, for “out of Zion shall the Torah come forth”. We are committed to making the city’s growth our top priority and to helping develop its unique qualities and resources.

Looking at tomorrow, Israel moves from 60 to 120

The recent President’s Conference in Israel was more than just a birthday gala, it was a frank discussion of how to solve some of the country’s most pressing social problems.The recent Israeli President’s Conference, convened and masterminded in Jerusalem by Shimon Peres, was an extraordinary event. Subtitled “Facing Tomorrow” – or in Hebrew, simply Hamachar, Tomorrow – it followed the festivities for Israel’s 60th anniversary and celebrated the country’s myriad accomplishments in many domains.

World leaders, presidents and high-ranking officials of many nations gathered in respect and friendship.

But the conference was more than simply congratulatory. Beyond the exhilaration of the moment, beyond the hoopla of a birthday gala, it was a gathering of brainpower to look toward the future – as the presenters took to repeating – from 60 to 120.

Most impressive were the open and in-depth discussions about the problems that Israel faces in this new century. While security remains an ongoing concern, it was the soul of the country that many of the participants – writers, political scientists, lawyers, professors, politicians – addressed, on many levels and in different realms. Without diminishing the complexity of what was discussed, I would say that two themes emerged as central: poverty and solidarity.

At the start of the conference, writer Amos Oz recalled a news report in the 1950s about a little girl who said she went to bed hungry at night. The country, Oz remembered, was shocked. Hunger? In Israel? A hungry child? How could that be? How could we allow it? The Knesset, the media – simply everyone, as Oz remembers it – became preoccupied with resolving the problem of poverty in Israel, a crushing poverty that sent children to bed with empty bellies.

Today, Oz noted with sadness, many go hungry, but no one feels shocked. The gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening, and the ethos of care – the sense of responsibility for the have-nots – seems to have diminished. The solidarity that defined Israel in the 1950s – an Israel far less materially endowed than today’s nation – seems to have given way, in more affluent times, to special interests and self interest.

This dual focus – responsibility for eradicating poverty and its attendant problems, and reinvigorating a sense of social solidarity – was echoed throughout the three-day conference, from many angles and by many speakers, from educators and philosophers to politicians and high-ranking government officials. Indeed, it was reiterated by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the closing session of the conference.

To be sure, Israel in its second half-century is different from Israel in its first decades. Then, it was easier to maintain the sense of cohesion and belonging in a small and more homogeneous population, especially with the very creation of the state in living memory of most of its inhabitants. Today, Israel is blessed and challenged with a booming population, and one of increasing diversity. Not only have Jews from a vast array of cultures made aliyah, but Israel is home to foreign workers separated from loved ones by thousands of miles, and it’s a haven to refugees from genocide and persecution in places such as Darfur.

None of the conference participants suggested that renewing social solidarity was an impossible goal, a pipe dream, a child’s idyll. Rather, the responsibility for one’s neighbors was seen as integral to the deep ethos of the country and profoundly Jewish. While it may sound like an ethereal goal compared with the more practical and tangible problem of poverty, it’s the ethical commitment that underlies resolving other concerns.

Many tourists visit Israel without ever facing the country’s poverty head-on. Dazzled by the country’s spiritual, natural and physical richness, and awed by its progress in so many industries, most visitors never venture into an overcrowded classroom, an inadequate apartment, or foreign workers’ quarters. And most countries, celebrating a significant milestone with international dignitaries and other invited guests, would not draw attention to such things.

But this conference demonstrated that Israel is not like most countries. At 60, Israel can rightly revel in its achievements – the creation and maturation of the state itself, against great odds; its inventiveness in areas such as agriculture, high tech, renewable energy sources, medicine; and its literary and cultural production. At the same time, its highest office encourages and fosters open, public and transparent discussions of problems and challenges that need to be solved.

In hosting, Peres brought honor to the office of the president and established his legacy for generations to come.

Reprinted courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News.