Finding New Hope Across Israel and Palestine

 In Blog

To continue working towards our goals, we must first meet them across the divides. 

Once a year, I journey to Israel and the West Bank with Mejdi Tours and Healing Across the Divides. This year, a trip to see our grantees and on the ground representatives in Israel (Veronica Vigdorchik) and in the Palestinian Territories (Nehad Fattah) felt more urgent despite the fact that the horrors of October 7th are still ongoing. Below is a recap of my 5 day whirlwind stay in Israel and Palestine: 

Day 1 – Visiting Staff and Meeting New Grantees in Israel and the Palestinian Territories

As I step foot on the grounds of , I asked myself, “how can we bring more tangible actions of healing to the communities across this region?” I look to our grantees for answers of hope. Healing Across The Divides always funds one community group supporting African refugee asylum seekers. We are proud to be now supporting the המרכז לפליטים בנגב Negev Refugees Center. Over a wonderful Iftar dinner, I met with amazing Israeli staff including Yehudit Keshet and some of the Sudanese leaders of the more than 1000 Sudanese refugee asylum seekers in the Negev. Some of the leaders have been in Israel for more than a dozen years. They are all hoping to leave for a third country. In the meantime, they are just beginning their health workshops that we are funding – focussing on the physical and, especially, mental health needs. In the morning I also meet with staff at two NGOs, עומדים ביחד نقف معًا and Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Among many other topics we discussed about how sexual violence against one woman anytime/anyplace is unacceptable. 

Day 2 – Childhood Literacy Intervention at Al Baqour 

Veronica and I learn about an evidence-based early childhood literacy intervention that Al Baqour leaders are implementing in the Negev. They emphasized the need to engage with the local culture. At the same time, the milk and honey or Tipat Halav clinics throughout Israel have legitimacy. That is where the intervention is occurring. Later in the morning we meet with leaders of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages.  They are implementing psychological interventions geared towards Bedouin women and children in the Negev. On and after October 7, many Bedouin were killed, a number were kidnapped and have not yet returned, and, for example, a bus with 200 Bedouin on October 7 just fled the area towards the Dead Sea. While it was an emotional day, I appreciate the amazing strength of the women leaders of these two groups. 

Day 3 – Art can save humanity

Years ago, I saw an exhibit by Hadassa Goldvicht in Venice Italy in which she engaged via art with the Jewish community – ancient and modern of Venice – where part of my family is from. We’ve remained in occasional touch, and I saw her this morning. She told me about a popup exhibit that she helped organize shortly after October 7th. She expected no one to come. Instead, the art gallery was completely full; people just wanted to experience an engagement with art, with the human spirit, during these traumatic days.  

I spent the afternoon with 2 grantees – Ladaat and Diabetes Palestine/ Ashjuan. The pioneering  staff at Ladaat exemplifies what has happened with each and every grantee in Israel, the West Bank after October 7. Ladaat focuses on reproductive rights in Jerusalem in a joint effort between Jews in West Jerusalem and Palestinian women in East Jerusalem. They are not only working but going at an even greater pace. The Palestinian leaders of Ladaat highlighted their reproductive rights  programs to hundreds of students in East Jerusalem together with facilitating abortion rights services for Palestinian women – often under challenging and even perilous circumstances. Together with Nehad and Veronica, we also met with new joint project grantees Diabetes Palestine (based in Hebron, West Bank) and Ashujaan (based in Nazareth, Israel). They will be implementing the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program (CDSMP) developed at Stanford and translated into Arabic. Starting in May, I will be training the Israeli and Palestinian organizations  in the CDSMP and they in turn will work with hundreds of diabetics in self-management/ empowerment. 

In the evening, I had a magical time with Emili and her husband Salim. Magical in the sense that Emili and Salim are two young people who have not given up while deeply appreciating the complexities, are making a difference, and wanted to show me the beauties of Jerusalem from a new vantage point. Emili was one of our Mejdi Tour guides  for our annual Healing Across the Divides Study Tour in 2023. Sign up here for this year’s Healing Across the Divides Study Tours. Salim, her husband, is a Palestinian rehabilitation medicine doctor working in a new rehab hospital where the vast majority of patients are Israeli soldiers seriously injured in the current war in Gaza. 

Day 4 – A Day of Hope  

Bus transport has changed since my last visit. Since October 7, instead of going directly between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the bus drops me off at the Qalandiya checkpoint, where I then walk through a long snake-like tunnel to the Palestinian Territory on the other side, and take another bus to my destination, Lions Square in downtown Ramallah. I wait there for Nehad, our Palestinian representative, and we go to our first grantee meeting with Palestine Sports for Life (PS4L). We meet at Amari refugee camp where the night before a Palestinian man from the camp was killed by Israeli soldiers in a raid (he was one of approximately ten Palestinians killed in Israeli military raids on Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank that previous night, a regular occurrence almost never reported on in the foreign media). The principal of the UNRWA school tells us that the school which serves approximately 500 students from grades 1-9 might close in commemoration of this death. We go ahead with our meeting which focuses on nutrition and physical exercise intervention in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Coincidentally, the physical-education teacher is from Biddu, the town where I used to see patients as an internist for several months in 1996. All the women and young girls speak in confident and joyful voices on the impact the PS4L intervention has had on their lives both at school and at home. In thanking all the PS4L participants at the conclusion of the meeting I emphasize that each and every one of them ranging from schoolchildren to middle aged mothers could be tomorrow’s leaders. This gives me a feeling of hope. 

Next, we head to Bethlehem where we meet with a new grantee. I’ve known the founder and leader of this organization since almost the beginning of Healing Across the Divides when we funded a nutrition intervention at another organization.  The intervention focuses on the mental health of mothers, young adults and children who’ve been exposed and continue to be exposed to war violence. The team is implementing a train the trainer model of several interventions. For those who are exposed to violence of any sort (Israeli military, domestic) they try to intervene within 24-48 hours after an incident. They use a model that consists of look, listen, and link to what they actually need – protection, legal assistance; “light” counseling. They have established protocols for referral for individuals needing greater mental health assistance. They plan to start a men’s group they think will be “popular” as after October 7, men can’t go to their previous work in Israel with consequent dive in income – thus an increase in domestic violence and marital separation. 

In the early evening, I have the most personally meaningful work related event during this trip – dinner with all the local Healing Across the Divides staff – Nehad, Tova and Veronica. I always knew about the clearly close relationship that all 3 three had before October 7, a relationship which has only deepened since that day. They are not only still speaking with each other since October 7, not a small feat in these challenging days but have intensified their communication accompanied by respect for each other’s perspective. We start with a business meeting discussing our upcoming every 5 year retreat. Most of the time we share stories and laughs amongst each other. At the end we celebrate Nehad’s upcoming birthday next week. 

Day 5 – Reflections 

As I prepare to leave, I hold two photographs / thoughts close to my heart. 

The first thought consists of two photographs, variations of which are extremely widespread in Israel (and which everyone in the United States has seen) calling to bring the over 100 Israeli hostages back home. And there is a second that I saw in Ramallah in the West Bank, a photo-montage memorial of a small number of the many thousands of children killed up till now in Gaza by the Israeli military. 

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the incredible work of our grantees. For more grantee highlights, a grantee Q&A section will now be shared monthly in Healing Across the Divides’ new blog, Stories Across the Divide.