In a departure from convention, the last retreat of the third cohort of the Mandel Local Leadership Program in Beer Sheva was not devoted to summing up, to an interpersonal encounter, or to statements of reconciliation, hope, and consolation. Instead, it was dedicated to an analysis of protest and struggles for social justice and environmental conservation, and to the role of leaders in leading such struggles.
The retreat began in Kishon Park, in the heart of the Haifa Bay region, with the story of Dr. Smadar Ben Asher, the program director. Dr. Ben Asher spoke about the enormous moral and leadership challenge of speaking truth to government and big business, about the economy, and about forces that muzzle protest.
The fellows met with Yehuda Haber, a former navy diver, who dove in the Kishon River as part of his training and – like many of his fellow commandos – fell ill with cancer. They also met with Shmulik Gelbhart, an architect who spent many years as a member of the municipal establishment and is now a consultant for environmental groups in the Haifa Bay area. Haber spoke about his experiences as a naval commando in the days when commanders punished their subordinates by forcing them to drink water from the Kishon River, and when diving there was a regular occurrence. Gelbhart said that his case was not representative: in most cases, petrochemical plants co-opted environmental activists and turned them into advocates on their behalf.
The morbidity statistics in the Haifa Bay area are highly disturbing. The fact that it is impossible to point to a clear causative link between environmental pollution and the harm the population has suffered – the kind of link that will stand up to legal tests and force a policy change – does not sufficiently explain the degree of fatigue that local residents are displaying or the difficulty that environmental activists are having in leading local residents toward a much more intensive struggle.
Next the group met with two men from different backgrounds who have formed a strong friendship: Munir Saloum, an Arab resident of Kiryat Eliyahu, which borders on Haifa's German Colony, and Yehezkel Varshay, a religiously-observant Jewish man who moved to the same neighborhood after having lived for many years in the Carmel region as a member of the established middle class. Saloum and Varshay did not try to present a model of Jewish-Arab cooperation, nor did they demonstrate a new model of peacemaking. Instead, they told the story of a simple and steadfast friendship between families living in a community motivated by brotherhood rather than common interests. While brotherhood is a resource with positive economic results, such results are not its goal, and it will continue to exist even without them.
The next activist to meet with the group was Yaron Hadar, whose highest priority is the Carmel region's Hadar neighborhood, which has more than 40,000 residents. A social entrepreneur and social activist, Hadar has led local struggles in favor of public parks and relief measures for small businesses, as well as encounters between Jews, Arabs, and new immigrants. He has been so successful in these efforts as a volunteer that he now does the same things as an employee of the municipal establishment. He stressed that the struggles have not disappeared, as one might have expected; rather, they have merely changed their shape.
The lecture of Rafi Kimchi, a faculty member of the Social Economic Academy in Haifa, took place at the end of the day. Kimchi spoke about workers' struggles in which he was involved, as well as those in which he was not involved. He said that workers never accomplished anything of significance without a fight. According to Kimchi, struggle is a necessary condition for improving the conditions of hired employees, and community leaders must take that into consideration as they build their identity and cause. Similarly, Kimchi believes that solidarity among workers is not necessarily an existential given, but is achieved through partnership in struggle.
The link between leadership and struggle, a prominent topic on this day of the retreat, seemed to run counter to the concept of the retreat itself. Even those who were troubled by the abundance of struggles admitted that a quick look at the injustices that continue to exist around us and in our society confirms the need for engaging in struggle as a necessary part of leadership development.
What about those whose natural inclination is to pursue peace and compromise? During the course of the retreat, we learned that the term "struggle" has as many human meanings as the number of leaders who work for change and for promoting good in the world. It is possible to understand struggle through friendship, trust, cooperation, and seeking peace, as long as one does not lose one's way.