American civil rights leaders visiting the Ofra settlement this week.
American civil rights leaders visiting the Ofra settlement this week. Photo by Richard Foltin/AJC
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As a Hindu American, Suhag Shukla said she had always felt an affinity for Jewish culture because of its shared values with Hinduism, including the centrality of family and education. But when she boarded a plane last week to visit Israel for the first time - as part of a delegation of American civil and human rights leaders - she said she suddenly felt like a stranger among the observant Jewish passengers.

"It kind of dawned on me as to how little I know about Jewish life, tradition and history," said Shukla, who serves as director of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "That was at once terrifying and exciting."

Shukla said she experienced a range of emotions during a weeklong seminar organized for the civil rights leaders by Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee, and designed to provide a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing Israel.

Col. (res. ) Miri Eisin, an American-born former intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces, gave an overview of Israeli politics and society to the group, which included representatives from the National Urban League, Japanese American Citizens League and National Immigration Forum, among others. She said part of her job whenever she speaks to international groups is to dispel misconceptions about Israel and Judaism.

Many of the participants, for instance, were surprised to learn that Israel is a Jewish state but not a religious one; that most Israeli Jews are non-practicing; and that Israeli Arabs comprise 20 percent of Israel's population.

Eisin, who served as international media adviser to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, noted that while Project Interchange "doesn't show them the Israel I would show them," the institute promotes an open dialogue about the limits of freedom and democracy in Israel. "You don't try to paint that we're this wonderful, perfect society," Eisin said. "You present for them all of the warts and pimples."

The group's itinerary included site visits in Israel and the West Bank, including to the Jewish settlement of Ofra and the Palestinian development city of Rawabi, where they discussed economic development; a tour of Sderot and the Golan Heights to learn about Israel's security concerns; and an immigrant absorption center in Safed, where the group interacted with Ethiopian children. (They also squeezed in a few touristy activities like floating in the Dead Sea, exploring the Western Wall tunnels and touring sites on the Sea of Galilee. )

Along the way, the delegation met with academics, journalists, artists and leaders of nonprofit organizations, including those who are sharply critical of the Israeli government and its policies.

"I thought there was an honest-to-goodness commitment to seeing that we were exposed to the major points of view in this land," said Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, which promotes religious freedom. He noted that the trip organizers offered to put the participants in contact with other thinkers if they felt certain perspectives were missing from the program.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a leading civil rights coalition in the United States, said that the presentations were "refreshingly candid" and left him with more questions than answers. As a researcher for B'Tselem described human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, Henderson said he was reminded of similar violations in the United States. For example, he said the demolition of the houses of suspected terrorists and the denial of resources to the Gaza Strip resembled the expulsion of families of criminals from public housing and the neglect of Native American populations in the United States. Israel, like the United States, is a “work in progress,” he said.

Shukla, of the Hindu American Foundation, suggested that while American leaders tend to be solution-oriented, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not lend itself to easy solutions. As such, the trip was characterized by moments of frustration and humility: “It’s not so easy for America to say, ‘Well, I think you should do it this way.’” She cited the country’s general acceptance of the LGBT community as an example of how Israel has made greater strides than the United States on certain social issues.

Over 6,000 leaders from more than 70 countries have participated in educational excursions to Israel with Project Interchange, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Previous trips have been tailored to university presidents, energy experts and military analysts.

There is no expectation that trip participants will be transformed into pro-Israel activists by week’s end, said Richard Foltin, who has staffed a dozen trips over the years and serves as director of national and legislative affairs for AJC. Still, he said, there is tremendous value in exposing influential figures to the complexity of Israeli society. Said Foltin: “You never know when somebody’s going to be in a conversation where their more informed perspective is going to be an important contribution to the discussion.”