When our NILI group (National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Mideast Peace) visited Israel in December, we had been planning to meet with former member of Knesset (MK) Naomi Chazan. Chazan has been a leader of the progressive community through her seat with the Meretz Party. We were disappointed to learn that she was unfortunately out of the country and we had to settle for reading a series of her most recent columns from the Israeli press. Through them we got a glimpse of her clear, passionate, articulate and visionary leadership in area of peacemaking and social justice.

That glimpse made me long for the time when we could meet with Chazan and other Israeli politicians who could speak to the issues that are most concerning to me. So it was serendipitous that such an opportunity would quickly present itself. The New Israel Fund announced a town hall meeting at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, featuring some of the greats: Naomi Chazan, Avraham Burg (former speaker of the Knesset), Martin Indyk (former American ambassador to Israel) and the new executive of New Israel Fund Daniel Sokatch. This august panel was to be moderated by Jane Eisner, editor of the Jewish Forward, the national Jewish newspaper.

My husband and I trekked into the city for the event, which meant that it definitely qualified as a special occasion. The panel made it worth the while. While I can’t say that I learned much that was new to me, I was affirmed in hearing such well articulated arguments for change in five key areas of concern in Israel. The issues were each presented with a short news film clip, followed by a discussion by the panelists. The main issues were: Israeli Arabs, religious pluralism, the settler movement, and accusations (a virtual war of rhetoric in Israel and the Diaspora) accusing progressive voices of being “unpatriotic” – and how to air Israel’s “dirty laundry” in public, and the political climate in Israel.

The discussion touched upon each of the most significant challenges facing Israel today: all come under the category of the nature of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. It came amidst acknowledgement that the left wing in Israeli politics is essentially “missing in action,” a depressing reality that might have left us feeling hopeless. But there were encouraging reports of an increasingly active social justice network across Israel, through a variety of organizations that are working on Israel’s challenges one issue at a time. Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tzelem, Women of the Wall, Hiddush, etc. are some great examples.

Avraham Burg was inspiring and provocative, and I could have sat and listened to him – or better yet, talked with him—all day. He offered this ray of hope: many transformative ideas that became mainstream in Israel came out of the liberal, progressive left. This includes some ideas that seemed good at the moment, but became runaway bad policies. The initial policies establishing settlements came about under the leadership of Shimon Peres, now Israel’s elder statesman and president, who speaks so eloquently about making peace with Palestinians. Even the security barrier was initially championed by the left, and it has become the flashpoint for accusations of Israel as a heartless power ruling over a disenfranchised majority (the Palestinians.) When a disheartened Ehud Barak came home from the Taba  peace talks empty-handed, he proclaimed “we have no partner” and this has been the excuse of the politicians ever since for their hard-line policies. A notable idea that migrated from the left to the right was Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, an idea championed by the left for a generation (though the way it was done was Sharon’s.) And now even Netanyahu acknowledges the need for a “two state solution.” The historic influence of the left was touted as a reason to believe that the social justice issues that plague Israel today can be addressed with a strong voice from the progressive community.

The problems of religious freedom, rights of Israeli Arabs and the Jewish character of a democratic Israel may seem overwhelming. But with inspiration from great leaders such as these, there is hope that change can happen. The crowd that filled the sanctuary of BJ was encouraged to be activists – we were urged to write to American and Israeli politicians to tell them that we will not tolerate the abuse of power of the religious minority, the extremist settlers, or an intolerant bourgeoisie that has a blind spot in regard to Israeli’s minority communities. And of course, we were encouraged to support the New Israel Fund, whose advocacy and financial support for a host of organizations and projects is helping to change the reality on the ground.

The program was streamed live on the NIF (http://www.nif.org) website. I hope it is posted—it’s well worth watching. There are also other valuable resources on the site. It encourages a renewal of hope. We can do this, together.