By Sylvia Bashevkin, NIFC Advisory Council

Our NIFC study group was full of warm, kind, interesting people who made each day a joy to be together.

Yet my reflections are likely somewhat different from those of other participants.

I was fortunate to spend time in Israel as a student, both in a high school near Ashkelon and in Ramat Aviv as an undergraduate.

In the intervening years, I’ve returned to Israel many times and have taken lots of Hebrew language courses. Each day I try to watch the Israeli evening news broadcast.

Before my plane left this past April, I participated in a Toronto protest against the efforts of the current Netanyahu government to turn Israel into a compromised, highly endangered democracy. I also went to a demonstration in Tel Aviv before our study tour began.

These experiences meant that after our tour organizer, Adi, announced on the last day of the NIFC trip that she was sorry to have broken our hearts – I had to take her aside and explain that she’d not broken mine.

Watching the news from any place every day means there are not too many surprises when you visit.

I told Adi that I was grateful to her for opening my eyes wider.

Watching the nightly news, I know that what happens in Lod on a regular basis is not unlike what happens in inner city Detroit, except the violence and tension come from different sources. It was only with the NIFC group that I had an opportunity to walk the streets of Lod, meet people who live there, and understand how challenging it is to improve the lives of Jewish as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel. I saw first-hand how problem-solving is particularly difficult under a polarizing central government in place since last November.

If I were to identify the most memorable part of our study tour, it would have to be the visit to the South Hebron Hills. Here we saw first-hand the pillboxes and checkpoints and raw tension that characterize life for soldiers as well as civilians of all backgrounds living in the West Bank.

I visited the West Bank as a 17 and 18-year-old, within the first 4 or 5 years following the 1967 war. There was unease then, but Israel’s occupation is now middle-aged at 56 years.

As of spring 2023, patterns of militarization and invasive settlement have reached a point where it’s hard not to see a very grim picture.

As someone who believes in peaceful answers to the world’s conflicts, I was struck by the willingness of the Arab family who hosted us for lunch in the South Hebron Hills to seek solutions through the Israeli legal system. Their problems are dire: imminent eviction, lack of housing, lack of water, lack of electricity, and general inability to continue to live on land that has been in their family for generations.

I saw firsthand how so much of the West Bank has been appropriated for military training purposes (notably for firing zones) and for settlement creation and expansion.

The difference I saw between the basic public infrastructure that exists for Arabs versus Jews was striking and clear in Lod, but that gap was even more extreme and stark on the West Bank.

Arabs in the South Hebron Hills simply don’t have sufficient water, for themselves or their animals, while the style of living for settlers in places like Kiryat Arba is not so different from what one sees in suburban California.

My last reflection has to do with the words I heard from my own relatives, colleagues, and friends during my visit. In the course of a 17-day visit, I met a total of one person who agreed with what the current government was doing. The rest were totally opposed and shared a growing sense that as the Israeli judiciary was being weakened, along with it the human fabric that holds together a democratic society was being ripped apart.

My last phone call as our tour ended was with my cousin Zahava, a retired high school math teacher. She concluded by saying, “I have three daughters, two of whom have already left Israel. I won’t ask any questions when the third one goes.”

I flew back to Toronto inspired by the work of so many creative, committed people to find constructive solutions to what seem like intractable problems. I’m keenly aware of the huge brain drain of moderate Israelis underway right now.

As a strong optimist, I imagined on my return flight that we could all pray for new elections and then direct our energies toward flying all those moderate Israelis back to vote for parties other than the ones in the current government.

It’s the start of a new year, and we all need to dream big!