"Studying the changing face of Israeli society"

This week, Sara Sterling, one of this year's Naomi Chazan Fellow, had an op-ed published in the Australian Jewish News.

The last time I went to Israel was 13 years ago.

At the time I’d just finished high school, and was preparing to spend a year there with my youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, meeting other Zionist youth leaders from all over the world. It was an inspiring, challenging and unforgettable trip.

It taught me a lot about Israel, myself, and the values I hold.

I recently had the privilege of returning to Israel with the New Israel Fund Australia, and four other Australian fellows. Along with fellows from the UK, USA and Canada we spent 10 days touring Israel and hearing from a number of NIFsupported organisations and individuals who support human rights, religious freedom and progressive movements inside Israel.

It was a trip that was just as inspiring, challenging and unforgettable as my Shnat trip, but in different ways.

I remembered what I love about Israel – the frenetic energy in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, hearing Hebrew spoken everywhere, and the ability to get life-changing hummus any time of the day – but I also noticed many tests to equality that will shape the nation’s future.

The day after our trip officially finished Israel passed the controversial Nation-State Law.

It sends a powerful message to the nonJews in Israel – some 20 per cent of society – that they are less equal than others.

The passage of the law, and the surrounding debate has raised concerning questions about democracy, inclusion of minority groups, and freedom of religion and how these values play out in the modern Israeli state.

Our trip focused on these very questions, and we had the privilege of meeting with a number of Israelis who are working to support both Jews and non-Jews and those who are marginalised in Israeli society. During our first day on the fellowship we heard from Naomi Chazan, former deputy speaker of the Knesset, about democracy in Israel today.

She spoke of threats to democracy both within Israel and worldwide, and the need to protect democratic institutions.

She highlighted a vibrant civil society as one of the key ways Israeli citizens are protecting minority rights within their country and pushing back against this trend. NIF, which has come under significant fire from the Netanyahu government this year, is leading this fight.

Another day Sultan Abu Obaid from Shatil led us on a tour of the Bedouin villages in the northern Negev.

Among the poorest communities in Israel, we learned about the Bedouins’ fight for equality in Israel.

Approximately 60 per cent of the community lives at or below the poverty line.

Villages still considered unrecognised are constantly in negotiation with the Israeli government to provide access to basic necessities including water and electricity.

In light of the Nation-State Law minority groups such as Bedouin and Druze, who hold Israeli citizenship, are in danger of further marginalisation.

The fellowship was unique in that it offered us the opportunity to engage with these questions by seeing the issues first hand. On one day in East Jerusalem we were able to witness the complicated tapestry of the Green line, the Oslo Accords, the municipality of Jerusalem and the security wall, and how they impact the lives of Palestinians.

For example, the Palestinian refugee camp Shu’afat, which is inside the municipal boundary of Jerusalem and outside of the security wall, has had to deal with these challenges on a day-to-day basis.

Its irregular zoning means residents of the camp are left on their own to deal with issues such as rubbish collection and ambulance services and unregulated building.

The zoning left a noticeable dent in the skyline that our guide called “little Manhattan.”

As fellows we saw much more than can be conveyed in this article alone.

The Israeli activists we met with were inspiring in their energy and optimism for Israel’s future as a country that is inclusive of all its citizens – Jewish and non-Jewish.

For me personally, the trip has prompted me to join the Israelis we met in fighting for a modern Israeli state that upholds religious freedom, human rights and protects the rights of all its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.

Despite the incredible work ahead to ensure these values remain strong in Israel, I came home optimistic about our ability to fight for a state that is inclusive for all.