Our CCAR delegation had the unusual but rewarding opportunity to travel to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority, to talk with Palestinian business and political leaders. Each rabbi in our group took away something different from the day. I’ll begin with my own general impressions and then fill in the details. What I took away was: 1) we do indeed have partners for both economic and political engagement; 2) Palestinians are thinking creatively about building a sustainable economy in their emerging state and have been working successfully in mutual engagement with Israelis in universities and other settings; 3) Restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation such as freedom of movement of both goods and people are severely hampering economic development; and 4) Women are an emerging and strong force in the Palestinian work place.
Our leaders who arranged the meetings were Felice and Michael Friedson, founders of Media Line. They first took us to meet with Kamel Husseini, the Managing Director of The Portland Trust. Founded in London in 2003, the Trust is a “British non-profit ‘action tank’ whose mission is to promote peace and stability between Israelis and Palestinians through economic development.” Husseini is an ideal director for such a trust. For much of his life he has reached out to Jews and Israelis, moved by our shared humanity. Husseini wrote a moving article about Hadassah Hospital as a model of humanity that we would all do well to emulate. He spoke from personal knowledge, having taken his mother there for oncology treatments for 12 years.
The goal of Kamel Husseini and the Portland Trust in Ramallah is to work on 5 areas of economic development (tourism, energy, construction, information technology, and agriculture) that are realistic given the restrictions of the Palestinian reality under occupation. It would not be realistic, for example, to work on manufacturing, since that requires access to resources and control of imports and exports through borders that are not available at this time. His hope is that by focusing on things they can do, they can help prepare the Palestinian economy for a time when there is an independent state. He is very eager to work with Israelis both now and in the future on economic projects.
Our next meeting took place at the beautiful new coffee house in Ramallah called Zamn. The second of an Starbucks type chain, Zamn was started by the impressive and articulate entrepreneur and business woman, Huda el Jack. El Jack, who moved to the West Bank from the United States in 2003, went to business school at Tel Aviv University. She wanted to go to a university where Palestinians and Israelis were together. Watching the students work together, she learned learned that it is “amazing what Israelis and Palestinians can do together when they are free”. El Jack wanted to make a difference in the economy and she certainly has. The food and coffee at Zamn were delicious. She wanted to make sure we understood, however, that she was able to do what she did in spite of the situation (occupation). “Don’t think there are a lot of opportunities here.” Taking advantage of her education abroad, however, she is creating opportunities for others.
While enjoying our lunches we were given the unexpected opportunity of hearing senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath. Shaat is a close advisor to Mahmoud Abbas and has been one of the key negotiators over the years. Shaath expressed great respect for John Kerry and his efforts, however was dissatisfied with the direction of the negotiations. While Palestinians, in his view, would overwhelmingly favor a plan of two states with 2 capitals and open trade between the two countries, what is being offered, in his view, is a state that is neither contiguous nor independent, and would not alleviate the restrictions of movement that he and other Palestinians suffer now. He expressed the frustration that Secretary Kerry seemed to be negotiating with Bibi Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, rather than with Netanyahu and Abbas.
Finally, we visited the planned city of Rawabi, not far from Ramallah. We were greeted by a woman, one of their engineers, who told us that there are 23 neighborhoods planned, 2 of them already completed with their 650 apartments already sold. The city will include a hospital, many schools, an amphitheater, mosques and churches, a convention center and much more. The building is on an almost unimaginable scale. Its visionary, Bashar Al-Masri spoke to us of his desire to make a difference in the Palestinian economy. He passionately explained that he does not want Palestine to be a state dependent on donations of other nations. He wants to help build a self-sustaining economy of his emerging country. Rawabi has become the number 1 private sector employer of Palestinians. And while it is an expression of Palestinians’ independent spirit, it also is a model of engagement with Israelis and Jews around the world, who have come to both learn from and offer their help and experience. While restrictions of movement and road building due to the occupation has been a major obstacle, Masri is still optimistic, and has received support from many in the Israeli public who can hopefully influence government officials to allow him the access to water and roads that the project requires.
We were all grateful to Felice, Michael and the CCAR for a day packed with opportunities for learning, listening and questioning.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman is the rabbi of Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.