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Israel is your country, too

Knesset member Dalia Itzik brings messages of peace, unity to Solomon Schechter in New Milford

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Dalia Itzik, head of the Kadima faction in Israel’s Knesset, addressed students and community members at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford on Tuesday. SSDS/Rachel Banai

Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female speaker of the Knesset, brought a message of peace to New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School on Tuesday as she addressed community leaders and students.

“We need you as our friends, we need you as our partners,” the former Knesset speaker said to a group of rabbis and community leaders. “We need you to continue your longtime support of Israel.”

Itzik’s visit was sponsored by Israel Bonds and coordinated by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El in Closter. He praised Schechter’s plurality and told The Jewish Standard, “She’s going to see some of the plurality we hope for in Israel.”

Itzik first addressed a group of rabbis and school officials, updating them on events in Israel and the peace process and Iran. Last year’s Operation Defensive Shield was a response to a constant barrage of rockets from Hamas and eight years of restraint by Israel, she said. She labeled those who criticized Israel during the operation as hypocrites, and dismissed the notion that Hezbollah and Hamas are fighting for land.

“They’re not fighting over borders. They’re not fighting over agreements,” Itzik said. “The real conflict is with our values, the values we share with you and the free world. The rest is just an excuse.”

Extremists are also a threat to the Palestinians, so reaching “a clear and viable solution” is a common interest, she said. Itzik warned that Iran will be a danger to Israel and the entire West if it attains nuclear weapons.

“Bitter experience has taught us to take such madmen [as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] seriously,” she said. “The ruler of Iran denies the Holocaust and has made us his target.”

After a performance of “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” by the first-grade class, Itzik moved from one room to another to address the school’s sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grades. She began by asking how many students understood Hebrew. The majority raised their hands. She then asked how many planned to visit Israel during Pesach. Again, the majority raised their hands. But when she asked how many wanted to be members of the Knesset, not a single hand went up, which drew a few chuckles.

Itzik then took a few questions from students, which they asked in Hebrew and then in English.

“Israel is your country, too,” she said. “I am very, very proud we have a country. With your help and your parents’ help, it will be a better place.”

Every day Israelis greet each other with “shalom” or “mah shlomcha,” how are you, which comes from the same root as shalom, she said.

“I don’t know any country in the world that dreams of peace [more than Israel],” she told the children.

Speaking to the Standard afterward, Itzik said the number of Israelis and diaspora Jews who never knew a world without Israel is growing, and they need to understand their responsibilities to help the state, just as the founding generation built Israel. Even her own children, now grown, she said, don’t understand what a miracle the Jewish state is, and that Israel still needs to fight for its existence.

That Israel is a democracy is another miracle, she said, considering that so many of the first wave of immigrants came from non-democratic countries in the Arab world.

“It’s very important for the young generation that they understand, that they continue what we started,” she said.

The 10-month settlement freeze, which Itzik did not support, was a major gesture to the Palestinians, which they should appreciate, she said. She does not support extending the freeze, but she and her Kadima Party support continued negotiations. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and other extremist elements in the region do not threaten only Israel, and the Palestinians should recognize that, she continued.

“When you talk with moderate Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, they understand we are in the same boat,” she said. The extremists “have adopted violence as a way of life,” she continued. “Since we’re in the same boat, [the moderate Arab governments] understand they must make concessions [in negotiations with Israel].”

Peace is the ultimate goal, she said.

“We want peace. This is our dream,” she said. “We have to convince the international community [that the terrorists] fight against what we represent — democracy, human rights, women’s rights, values.”

Itzik, who began her career as a teacher, is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of education. She was elected to the Knesset in 1992 as a member of the Labor Party, and has served as minister of the environment, minister of industry and trade, and minister of communications. In 2006, she left Labor for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s fledgling Kadima. Later that year, she was appointed speaker of the Knesset, a position she served in until 2009. During that time, she twice served as acting president of Israel.

“It was such an amazing match for her to see the kind of young leaders we raise, the level they care for the State of Israel,” said Ruth Gafni, SSDS head of school. “I was very touched by her commitment to support the peace process despite the difference in the parties.”

Especially for the school’s female students, Itzik is an example of what women can accomplish, Gafni said.

“It’s a wonderful fit,” said Gafni. “For the children, Dalia Itzik is a perfect role model.”

 
 

Shlomo Molla, Ethiopian member of Knesset, brings message of diversity to North Jersey

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Knesset member Shlomo Molla meets with members of Solomon Schechter Day School’s student government. Josh Lipkowsky

Few members of Israel’s Knesset can say their journeys to Israel included walking hundreds of miles and escaping from a Sudanese prison.

Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian member of Israel’s Knesset who came to the Jewish state as a teenager, told his story to members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.

During his talk at Emanu-El, which attracted more than 40 people, he spoke about the challenges of his Kadima Party’s remaining outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s need to be a Jewish state but not necessarily one based on Jewish law.

“He’s very quick to have those conversations with people as a black Jew because he knows what it’s like to be told you don’t count,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who met Molla at AIPAC’s Policy Conference earlier this year and arranged the visits.

At Schechter, Molla recounted his harrowing journey to Israel. Molla grew up in the Ethiopian village of Gandar, whose Jewish community traced itself back 2,500 years to the expulsion from Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. The 16-year-old Molla had heard about the Jewish state, and he and a group of friends began a 780-kilometer journey on foot across Ethiopia to reach “the land of milk and honey and gold.”

It was a dangerous journey, Molla said, but they were motivated. Their planned route was from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt and finally to Israel. When they reached Sudan, however, they were accused of being spies for Ethiopia and Israel and were thrown in prison, where Molla saw one of his friends murdered. They were soon taken to a Sudanese refugee camp, where an Ethiopian reached out to Molla and his friends. He directed them to a clandestine location, where they were met by Israeli commandos who brought them to Israel in 1984.

His first shock, Molla said, was seeing all the white people. He wondered if they were really Jews, he said. He now praises the Jewish state for its diversity.

“Israel is not like America,” Molla told an assembly of SSDS’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes. “Israel is the Jewish homeland, a country for each minority of Jews.”

Eventually, Molla went to work in the same absorption centers that helped him adapt to his new life in Israel, and he became a champion of Ethiopian rights. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forming his new Kadima Party, he encouraged Molla to join its parliamentary list, and Molla has been a member of the Knesset since 2008.

Molla left nine brothers and two sisters in Ethiopia. He had no contact with his family there until they came to Israel seven years later as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours.

The story of the Ethiopian immigration is largely unknown to American Jewish children, Molla told The Jewish Standard. He spent last week visiting schools and synagogues in New Jersey and New York, as well as meeting with political leaders in Washington to discuss the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.

“We need the United States to stand behind Israel,” he said, noting that the Israeli public is mostly unaware of the support President Obama has provided Israel militarily and financially.

When Obama spoke in Cairo, Germany, and Turkey during the early days of his administration, he missed an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people, Molla said.

“Obama must come talk to the Israelis eye to eye,” he said.

Molla is the second Knesset member to visit Solomon Schechter in as many months. Last month, Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female Knesset speaker and also a member of Kadima, addressed the students.

“It’s an inspiration,” said Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, who praised the politicians as role models for the children.

While Itzik brought a message of accomplishment for Schechter’s female students, Molla reinforced ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, said Gafni, who added how important it is for the children to see that there are black Jews.

“Our goal at the school is to provide the children an opportunity for learning from the experts in any field and to inspire them with role models in any field, and have them be eyewitnesses to history,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”

 
 
 
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