Coexistence and Innovation in Israel with KKL France

Monday, November 05, 2018 4:27 PM

On the itinerary: Diverse communities and initiatives in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko, the Gaza border and the Halutza sand dunes in the Negev.

KKL France’s annual Israel Today and Tomorrow mission to Israel, which includes French prominent opinion-makers and public figures, has arrived in the country to acquaint itself more closely with Israeli society and culture.
Starting November 1st, the 60 members of the French delegation have been spending a busy five days touring the length and breadth of Israel. Their destinations include Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Haifa and Akko, communities on the Gaza border and communities on the Halutza sand dunes in the Negev. These fascinating places, along with the people they are meeting along the way, are giving delegates the opportunity to observe Israel from different perspectives.
“It’s very important to us to bring influential figures here and show them the real Israel,” explained Dr. Robert Zbili, President of KKL France. “We can see how journalists who have taken part in earlier missions have achieved a better understanding of Israel, and it is reflected in what they write.”
Delegate Jean-Luc Lagleize, a member of the French parliament (the National Assembly), told us:
“This trip has given me the opportunity to get to know new places in Israel where I didn’t stop on previous visits. Each time I come here I see new facets of the country, and every trip is different from the one before.”
The itinerary for the visit was organized in conjunction with KKL-JNF’s Tourism Department, and emphasis was placed on two important aspects of Israel life: coexistence and innovation. “Many people abroad know only Israel’s negative aspects, as presented in the media. We show them the country’s positive sides,” said Tourism Department Director Shlomo Ben Haiem.

Haifa: Living together

The tour began at Beit HaGefen (“Vine House”), Haifa’s Arab-Jewish cultural center, which strives to create shared egalitarian spaces to house the variety of cultures and identities that abound in the city and in Israel as a whole. The center holds cultural, artistic, educational and tourism-related events for different groups within the population.
Beit HaGefen’s director Asaf Ron explained to the visitors that the center’s activities are based upon the belief that personal encounters with the culture of others help to break down barriers and promote trust.
“We work together to build a shared society, not just a mixed one,” he said. “A mixed society is a situation, while a shared society is a matter of values.”
Asaf Ron told the delegates that wherever they visited in Israel they would see Jews and Arabs living side by side:
“We all work, laugh and drink coffee together. But the tension is always here nonetheless, and the situation is very delicate,” he emphasized. “Here in Haifa we’ve created a special society in which people live on terms of mutual respect. Cooperation between Jews and Arabs has been part of the DNA of this city since before the State of Israel was founded.”
He told his guests that, for example, on the Festival of Festivals, an annual Haifa event held in December to promote tolerance, Santa Claus gives the children dreidels (four-sided spinning tops that are one of the symbols of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah).
“We’ve discovered that when you’re dealing with art, you can hold an open debate about the most serious conflicts,” he said. “We don’t try to change people’s political opinions, but just to replace fear with curiosity. Every culture has its own language, but when you come down to it, we’re all the same.”
“Coexistence is a hot topic in France and everywhere else in Europe,” said KKL-JNF envoy to France Fino Edri. “We regard this as an opportunity to show how we deal with the issue in Israel.”
Mathieu Gallet from Paris has made his career in the media and is touring Israel for the first time.
“It’s very interesting to visit a country that is the center of three religions and a place that arouses a great deal of curiosity in the media,” he said. “I find it to be a multicultural country with advanced technology.”

Kerem-El: Druze and Jews together

The delegates moved on to visit the Kerem-El Pre-Military Academy, which operates with the cooperation of KKL-JNF in the Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel.
The academy’s students are young Jews and Druze who have completed their high-school studies. CEO Lieutenant-Colonel Munir Madi explained that the academy is designed to foster a generation of leaders who will assume responsibility for society and the state.
“The pre-military course symbolizes the covenant of brotherhood between the Druze community and the Jewish People,” he said.
The course takes place in the local Hall of Remembrance, which perpetuates the memory of four hundred and twenty-eight fallen IDF Druze soldiers.
“The course contains elements that help to strengthen coexistence and life together,” said Munir Madi. “It’s important to us that the students get to know the country well and become involved in society, so as to be prepared for their induction into the army.”
Two of the students – Tomer from Petah Tikva and Bashar from Daliyat al-Carmel – talked about their shared activities and their experience of life together. “This is a very intensive and significant year during which we learn a great deal,” said Tomer. “I’ve come here to become empowered and to learn about the army and life in general,” added Bashar.    
Dr. Jaber Abu Ruqen spoke to the delegates about the Druze community and told them that the 140,000 or so Druze who live in Israel have linked their fate to the Jewish State. They are integrated into Israeli society, they serve in the army and share in all aspects of Israeli life.  “Druze believe in reincarnation and in a single higher power,” Dr. Abu Ruqen explained. “Our religion does not allow us to drink alcohol, smoke or eat pork. Our attitude is one of ‘live and let live,’ and we believe in accepting the other.”
The next stop was Akko’s Bahai Gardens, a site of pilgrimage for Bahais worldwide. The site includes two historic buildings – the home of the Bahá'u'lláh, the religion’s founding prophet, and his tomb. The surrounding gardens are a triumph of beauty, nature and devoted gardening.

Napoleon’s Hill: A historic lookout point

At the approach to Napoleon’s Hill in Akko it is impossible to miss the huge bronze sculpture that stands on the summit at the entrance to the city and depicts the famous French general mounted on a rearing horse. This statue marks the ancient site of Tel Akko, which, thanks to the support of KKL-JNF’s Friends in France, is now a popular tourist venue.
Daniel Arama, director of Akko Municipality’s tourism department, recounted how the abandoned and neglected tel had been restored and transformed into a beautiful site that attracts crowds of visitors from all over Israel. They come to learn something of the fascinating history of Akko, which had been an urban settlement already four thousand years ago and enjoy the wonderful views and beautiful flower garden.
A sign at the entrance to the site relates the history of Tel Akko in four languages – Hebrew, French, English and Arabic – and a network of footpaths enables visitors to explore easily. At the top of the tel, lookout points provide a 360-degree view northwards towards Lebanon, south to Mount Carmel, eastwards toward the Galilee and westward towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Akko: Contemplating the other

The delegation members toured Akko’s Old City and were impressed by the site’s long and fascinating history. The day concluded with a festive event at the Knights’ Halls, which date back to Crusader times.
“Even if we don’t change our opinions as the result of a single visit, at least we shall change the way we contemplate the other,” said Olivier Kaufmann, rabbi of the Jewish community in Paris.
“KKL-JNF is the oldest Zionist organization making the desert bloom,” declared Francis Kalifat, president of CRIF (Le Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France - The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France). “Because of KKL-JNF, the Land of Israel has become what it is today.”
“The media don’t always correctly present what’s happening in Israel, and it’s not until you actually come here that you get a true picture,” said Elise Fajgeles, president of the France-Israel Friendship Group. “When you visit Israel, you fall in love with it at once. You discover a quiet, modern country with developed sciences and a lively cultural life. But you need to come here to realize that.”