Can We Talk About Israel?

21 October 2021

It’s always a busy time at the New Israel Fund. These last two weeks have been chock full of the opportunities that come with new government ministers who share our values in Israel, and the challenges that come with responding to horrifying settler violence and the epidemic of violence in Arab society in Israel. Of course, it is also a time of celebration: our Guardian of Democracy virtual gala is this Sunday – and I will be MCing (sign up here!). And this week also marks the release of my new book, Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused and Conflicted.

Producing this book has been a labor of love, informed by and connected to my experiences leading NIF over the last twelve years. I’m really proud of it, and hope that, if you read it, you will find it brimming with the soul and spirit of the New Israel Fund.

You’ll meet activists, organizers, and leaders, many of whom are familiar NIF characters, all working to build a better Israel. I’ll be talking about the book with my good friend and NIF’s board President David Myers on November 3. I’m particularly proud of the final chapter, where I hand the proverbial microphone over to a few of these activists—some of the people who most inspire me and give me hope—so that they can tell their stories in their own voices.

First, there’s Maisam Jaljuli a Palestinian-Israeli activist and a leader of NIF granteee Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together).

Maisam first realized the power of solidarity between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel when she was 11 years old, living in Umm al-Fahm, and a band of Kahanists attempted to enter the city to wreak havoc. A huge group of Arabs and Jews—numbering in the tens of thousands—came together and blocked the city’s entrance with their bodies. Maisam says that they stood there so that neither Kahane the person nor “Kahane the idea” could enter.

Those citizens stood together so that racism and hatred would not divide Israelis from each other. Maisam has always held on to this vision of what Israel could be—a place where people work together towards justice and equality for all, even as this vision has not yet been fully realized. She knows, as do we at NIF, that there is no democratic future for Israel that is not a shared Arab-Jewish Israeli future. Maisam was awarded NIF’s top prize at our 2019 gala, where she spoke as NIF’s Guardian of Democracy Gallanter Prize winner.

Then there is Mutasim Ali. This is a man who arrived in Israel in 2009 as a refugee from the war and genocide in Darfur.

Mutasim came to Israel, he says, because he had heard that American Jews had helped lead the “Save Darfur” campaign, and thought that a state full of Jewish people would certainly provide him with refuge. When he got to Israel, the government detained him, threw up roadblocks to his asylum case, and pressured him to leave. Mutasim persevered and in 2016 he became the first Darfurian to obtain permanent residency status in Israel. In 2018, he became the first African migrant to graduate law school in Israel and has since dedicated himself to building a society that is committed to justice, peace, and welcoming those fleeing danger. He was awarded NIF’s Guardian of Democracy Gallanter Prize in 2016.

And finally, the chapter offers a glimpse into the work of Gadi Gvaryahu, the founder of Tag Meir (Light Tag), an organization that responds to terror with love and solidarity.

It is named Light Tag because it was founded during Hanukkah as a response to acts of settler violence against Palestinians that were dubbed “price tag” attacks. Tag Meir’s first act of solidarity came in the wake of an arson attack on a mosque in a village in the West Bank, when Gadi and several other Israeli Jews paid a solidarity visit to support those who had suffered. The group of activists has grown exponentially to include Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but the concept remains the same. Tag Meir visits the site of hate crimes to stand in solidarity with the victims and to offer emotional, financial, and moral support. It is now a powerful multi-faith force of activists who stand up and say that sectarian violence will not be done in our name.

I think it is impossible to read the stories of these activists without feeling awe and hope at their tireless pursuit of justice. My objective, in sharing their stories, and in writing this book in the first place, is to educate, inspire, and motivate people from all backgrounds, to give them the tools to navigate their relationship with Israel while supporting those Israelis working to change their country for the better.

Just before the pandemic, Colum McCann, National Book Award recipient and friend of NIF, wrote a beautiful book about the conflict called Apeirogon. When he agreed to blurb my book, I was doubly honored. Not only is he one of my absolute favorite authors, but his book highlighted recognizably NIF stories, especially those from members of The Parents Circle, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the violence of this conflict and so work together to end it. The stories are powerful, and they cry out to be shared.

I hope my book will, like Apeirogon and like the New Israel Fund itself, serve as a vehicle to tell the story of those Israelis working to repair their country, and provide the curious, confused, and conflicted among us with useful tools to understand and, ultimately, help them.

I will leave you, humbly, with Colum’s incredibly generous blurb about my book.

“We live in an age diseased with certainty, but Daniel Sokatch has the bravery to come along with an antidote that suggests that there is always so much more than one truth. Sokatch embraces the Whitmanesque notion that we are large and we contain multitudes. He allows us to understand that it is more difficult-but exceedingly more rewarding-to think kaleidoscopically about others. He disrupts and therefore re-nuances the accepted narratives, and he does this with great generosity of style and spirit. This is an important book, exceedingly well written, full of insight and empathy and even humor in the face of all available evidence.”

– Colum McCann