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Illuminating the darkness

Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. A month in which we celebrate Hanukkah, the holiday that commemorates the victory of the Israelites over the Greeks in a series of battles taking place around the year 165 BC.

Hanukah symbolizes our very basic right to celebrate Jewish identity under Jewish sovereignty. This very basic value of our nation, of any nation, was challenged just two days ago when the European Union’s executive approved new guidelines for labeling products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, a move that has already been criticized by Israel as “disguised anti-Semitism.”

According to these new guidelines, Israeli producers must explicitly label farm goods and cosmetics that come from settlements when they are sold in the European Union, emphasizing the term Israeli settlement.

The EU does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Sources in the European Union argue that these new guidelines are measures aimed to inform European consumers about the origin of these products. If the European Union is so eager to educate, are they also informing its citizens about Israel’s medical aid to Syrians; about Israeli hospitals that treat Palestinians on an ongoing basis; or about weeks of ongoing violent terror perpetrated by the Palestinians targeting civilians and Israeli soldiers. Does the EU plan to label goods from Northern Cyprus, which Turkey has occupied since 1974? Or from the parts of Georgia or Ukraine, which has seized in the past few year? Or perhaps label all goods produced by countries like China, India, Sri Lanka and others manufactured by child labor and slavery?

Labeling and boycotting Israeli products manufactured in Jewish settlements won’t really have any serious economic impact on Israeli businesses over the Green Line. It will instead greatly harm the Palestinian economy. At least 10,0000 employed Palestinians are expected to lose their jobs, and will have only few opportunities to find other jobs. For those Palestinians who do succeed in finding employment in Palestinian cities of the West Bank, they will have to settle for jobs without social or medical benefits and at a much smaller salary—a bit cut compared to the benefits and pay they now receive from Israeli employers.

These potentially newly unemployed Palestinians strongly oppose these new sanctions, and rather hope to continue with their normal, stable lives, working side-by-side with Israeli employees. It is a rare demonstration of co-existence that goes beyond the headlines and the European Union’s concern.

In a week when a 12-year-old Palestinian terrorist stabs a security officer on Jerusalem’s light rail; in times when daily stabbings, stonings and tossed Molotov cocktails are daily occurrences; when I, too, have to change my daily commute back home to avoid a certain highway that has been under attack; Europe’s reaction is this? Boycotting Israel? Giving a prize to terror? Encouraging violence? What’s the message, what are the subtitles? Palestinien economic frustrations will grow thanks to these new guidelines. They can easily trigger a “Palestinian Spring,” as economic stress triggered the violent Islamic revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. These recent guidelines do not prophesize peace, nor will they awaken a moribund peace process Israel is eager to renew.

Unfortunately the European Union holds a very one-sided, narrow-minded opinion. But fortunately, this isn’t the Israel known to the Jewish world, known to our Jewish communities.

Last week a group of more than 50 JCC leaders met at JCC Association’s first Innovation Lab: Jerusalem. This new, dynamic platform was designed to inspire Jewish Community Centers by introducing them to the best and brightest of the doers and thinkers of the “start-up nation.” Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular, is known to the world for its geo-political complications, religious complexities and ethnic sensitivities. This is Israel to the world—a country associated with war, terror and injustice.

Innovation Lab: Jerusalem invited participants to experience a very different Israel. This Israel faces those realities with eyes wide open, acknowledges the challenges, yet somehow continue to create, shape, invent and innovate.

Diversity is part of society. It’s part of the Israeli society and it’s part of our communities’ social fabric. Our Lab participants were inspired by unusual trailblazers representing minorities in Israel looking into ways to turn challenges into opportunities, to leverage diversity, and ultimately, to creatively build community. We delved into the worlds of art, sports, special needs, hi tech, social action, film, Jewish renewal and advertisement to be inspired from, learn and take home ideas, creativity and innovate thinking.

On Friday evening during the Lab, we joined the Zion Congregation in Jerusalem for a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat services.

As a native Jerusalemite, I am familiar with the city’s various congregations. The Zion community was the most inspiring Jewish moment I experienced in a long time. Raba Tamar Applebaum believes in no separation whatsoever. Jews of all denominations, ethnic backgrounds and levels of observance are welcome to join the synagogue. Non-Jews are welcomed as well. Men and women, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, secular, traditional and Orthodox Jews, tourists and Israelis, all feel at home, welcomed by Raba Tamar, an outstanding personality. Raba Tamar is a mother to all, a spiritual leader, a sister and a friend. She manages to lead a congregation based on mutual acceptance and respect. A community celebrating Jewish life in all its diversity, chanting all melodies, embracing the wide range of Jewish beauty.

One of the most famous Hanukkah songs is by poet Sarah Levi Tanai and reads as follows:

“We came to drive away the darkness
in our hands is light and fire.
Everyone’s a small light,
and all of us are a firm light.

Fight darkness, further blackness!
Fight because of the light!”

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights welcomes all lights. All of our different flames will join together, igniting our torch, illuminating and leading our way forward to a world of Jewish innovation, even in days of hardship, pain and darkness.

We should welcome all lights to proudly dance in our one collective menorah, together.

Shabbat shalom and an early happy Hanukkah!

Leah Garber, Vice President, Director | JCC Israel Center
[email protected]

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