As I wrap up more than four years of diplomatic service to New England on behalf of the State of Israel, I must say: What a difference between the cautionary advice I received before arrival and the supportive reality I subsequently found here.
At first I wasn’t sure. This was certainly true back in the summer of 2014, smack in the middle of another Hamas-instigated war. It was then that my Arabic-speaking wife (of Iraqi origin) and I first visited New England-based summer camps where the good people of this region host the Middle East’s younger generation to help foster coexistence.
In one of them, we joined campers doing arts and crafts — like them, we wrote in Arabic, Hebrew, and English — to the delight of a counselor who exclaimed, with all good intention: “It’s great to see you’re normal.”
It was then I realized: As Israel’s continuing need to protect its citizenry naturally commands attention, we have to work harder to broaden awareness of how deeply rooted societal and global betterment is in Israel — and how determined we are to promote values popularly known as “progressive.” I’m proud of how much Israel is doing to promote inclusion for its multicultural society, and very much wanted to share this locally.
Opportunity was knocking on the door; if only we answered it, with time — and evidence — we could expand the tent of understanding, friendship, and partnership. And so we did. Indeed, my wife and I — career diplomacy is a family affair — have worked overtime, particularly in this regard.
As our journey moved forward we continued to encounter the incredulous. To this day, New Englanders from all walks seem to scratch their heads upon learning that Israel has treated more than 4,000 Syrian casualties in our government hospitals. Our willingness to medically treat people assumed we would view as “the enemy” is not always readily understood.
To meet this challenge, on two occasions during my tenure here we hosted Dr. Salman Zarka, director of one of the Israeli hospitals involved in this important work. New Englanders’ response to direct contact with the people behind this story has been overwhelmingly positive.
Our support for those in need beyond our borders is embedded in our DNA. Indeed, this year we celebrate 60 years of Israeli International Development Cooperation, whose life-saving activities can be seen these days in earthquake-stricken Guatemala.
Israel’s commitment to inclusion is another issue that has aroused interest. Truth is, non-Jewish Israelis are breaking glass ceilings in growing numbers, and the best is yet to come.
Between 2012 and 2016, Israel’s Council for Higher Education — which receives 57 percent of its budget from the Israeli government — allocated about $82.5 million to encourage more Israeli Arabs to pursue a degree; the Council’s planning-and-budget committee has extended the program for another six years, more than tripling the budget. Today, students from Israel’s Arab community — 21 percent of our population — constitute 22.2 percent of the population at our prestigious Technion Israel Institute of Technology (“our MIT”).
Determined to strengthen partnerships between Israel and this region, we made sure during my tenure that New Englanders met the Israelis who embody values through their work. These included activities in Boston by our minister for social equality, as well as the architect of Israel’s $4 billion economic development plan closing gaps in our country’s Arab community. Participants in groups we sent to Israel have also met with our national commissioner for equal employment opportunities, an accomplished Israeli Arab woman.
All of this – and more – make clear how totally natural it has been to represent both Israel’s security reality and our advancement of progressive values.
I leave New England confident about our ability to expand the tent of understanding, friendship, and partnership. Light years separate our first visit to a regional coexistence summer camp — where onlookers were amazed as my Arabic-speaking better half engaged with Palestinian and Egyptian children in their native language — and my appearance this year on the honorary committee list of its celebratory gala.
Be optimistic. Shalom!
Yehuda Yaakov has been Israel’s consul general to New England since 2014.