In most parts of the world, having coffee with friends in a sukkah hardly would be front-page news.
But it’s different in Efrat, home to 16,000 Jews in the Gush Etzion region between Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank. When the town’s mayor, Oded Revivi, invited Arabs from neighboring villages to share refreshments in his sukkah with about 30 Efrat residents on October 19, the Washington Post’s Israel correspondent wrote a story that began “Jewish settlers invited Palestinians over for the holidays. All went well until the guests headed home.”
Though most of the guests got home without incident, the Palestinian Authority’s security forces arrested four of them. They were released four days later, after COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit of Israel’s Defense Ministry, intervened.
The men also had to pay the equivalent of about $15,000 — call it a bribe or a fine — a sum that Mr. Revivi is actively raising to reimburse them. He has been meeting with them regularly to strengthen their resolve to continue participating in the cross-cultural encounters and dialogues.
“They are quite proud and know they did nothing wrong,” Mr. Revivi, a 47-year-old father of six, said. “They are extremely upset and hurt because they didn’t expect to end up in a prison cell for having a cup of coffee with their neighbors.”
He will discuss the episode during three speaking engagements in New Jersey this weekend. At Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, he will speak in the main sanctuary at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. He will focus on his longtime efforts to build relationships with his Arab neighbors and he will conduct a question-and-answer session at seudah shlishit late that afternoon in the Orthodox shul’s social hall.
On Saturday night, he will speak at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, and on Sunday evening he will meet with current and alumni Berrie Fellows in Cresskill. The Berrie cohort met with Mr. Revivi last summer in Efrat and reported being “captivated by his leadership, energy, and focus on diplomacy,” said Berrie Fellow Marcy Cohen of Englewood, a member of the executive committee of Ahavath Torah.
“This is a leader who faces immense challenges, but has created a community, along with others, where there is a sense of security and calm,” Ms. Cohen said. “He has a specific process he teaches to mayors of other cities.”
Although Mr. Revivi has lived in Efrat since 1994 and was elected mayor in 2008 and 2013, he also serves as chief foreign envoy of the YESHA Council, the official body representing some 430,000 Jewish residents of the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria. (YESHA is the Hebrew acronym for these regions.)
The foreign envoy position, which Dani Dayan held until he was appointed Israel’s consul general to New York last July, involves advocacy trips worldwide as well as frequent meetings with foreign diplomats and journalists in Israel and abroad.
This appointment has given Mr. Revivi a much larger platform from which to base his activities, aimed at meaningful coexistence.
“I’ve been hosting hundreds of groups, three to four a week, trying to change the reality and build bridges,” he said. “What happened during Sukkot is part of an ongoing relationship that we’re building step by step.”
In a conversation shortly before taking off for America, Mr. Revivi said he does not have time to waste on feeling discouraged by disturbing events, such as those that followed his Sukkot soiree.
“There is a mission and we need to fulfill it,” he said. “That mission is being alive and getting along with our neighbors. We can carry on this conflict for decades, but that’s not what I want. I am well aware there are people on both sides who oppose this mission and they show that in various ways. But we must not get distracted by violent extremists.”
The level of fear engendered by extremists in the Palestinian Authority makes it difficult to get a true picture of how many Arabs are in favor of building bridges, Mr. Revivi said. But he insists the situation between Jews and their Arab neighbors is not as bleak as most people are led to believe.
“I take my measurements from what I see on the street,” he said. “Jews and Arabs are driving on the same roads and not bumping into one another; in a real conflict zone, it would be different. You go into the shopping center in Gush Etzion and see Jews and Arabs buying products in the same aisles of the same stores. There are endless examples of private individuals trying to live a normal life. It’s our job to increase this to a level where it becomes official and happens on a more regular basis.”
Mr. Revivi said the Berrie Fellows’ visit to Efrat was eye-opening for participants precisely because it afforded a close-up view of everyday life.
“Many times we make up our minds and build a whole theory about things we’re not really well educated about, but when you come and see the reality and get the facts, hear the people’s voices and look into their eyes, you get a much better perspective.”
His passion for diplomacy began when he was young. Born in Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv, Mr. Revivi was selected by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to be part of a teen delegation of goodwill ambassadors to the United States. He spent four years in the Israel Defense Forces’ armored corps and another 25 years as a reserve officer, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He received an undergraduate degree from East London Law School and a master’s degree in social sciences and public policy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a graduate of the San Francisco-based Gvanim fellowship, which fosters the advancement of religious pluralism in Israel, and completed an executive education program at Harvard Business School as a Maoz Fellow.
An outspoken critic of Israel’s security barrier, Mr. Revivi was instrumental in having its route changed, and he has campaigned for its total removal. He believes that fences are counterproductive.
Border fences became an issue in the U.S. presidential elections in regard to Mexico, not Israel. Asked to comment on Donald Trump’s victory last week, Mr. Revivi said: “I respect the American voters’ decision. It was a fascinating lesson in democracy. I think it’s very hard to estimate what kind of president he will be. Time will tell.”
Mr. Revivi already has invited Mr. Trump to be the first acting U.S. president to visit the disputed Israeli territories. “I will try everything possible to give the administration a clear picture of the reality in Judea and Samara and will participate in any dialogue and establish a mechanism of discussion,” he said.
“It is extremely important in such delicate issues that you don’t get information from second- or third-hand parties that might be biased. If you come and see with your own eyes, I think you can make judgments and calls that will be much more accurate than what all the surrounding advisers might tell you.”
On November 10, the Times of Israel published Mr. Revivi’s op-ed, “Come Together, Right Now,” calling on Jews in Israel and the diaspora to follow the example he’s trying to set between Jews and Arabs.
“Unlike many of my peers, my policy has always been to meet with all groups, irrespective of their religious or political affiliation, because opening people’s hearts and minds to the reality of life in Judea and Samaria is above politics and is vital to understanding Israel,” he wrote.
“I believe that peace and understanding between people can only occur through dialogue and shared experience. This is true for Israelis and Palestinians as well as Israeli and American Jewry. If we don’t interact with each other, our differences will only grow.”