I just got back from an amazing trip to Jerusalem. I hung out in a mosque built in the time of Salah Al-Din, ate delicious Armenian and Arab sweets, met a hot German tourist who knew what Sukkot was (!), and visited dozens of churches- some over 1,000 years old! I even got a tour of a Catholic church…in Dutch! And managed to understand most of it- and communicate with the visitors- in Yiddish! Tel Aviv has beaches and Jerusalem- it has roots.
Which brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Politics makes me so angry. My experiences working in the field in the U.S. were very difficult. There’s a lot of ego and a lot of immoral behavior – and not just in one party. The most inspirational experiences I’ve had in politics have been the spontaneous and organic ones. The rally I organized at my university against the ex-gay movement. The refugee rights rallies I attended by the White House- organized entirely via Facebook days before. The 70 and 80 year old women who went door-to-door for Barack Obama and made me matzah ball soup when I was sick. Pulling off a major upset against the St. Louis Democratic Party chair to become an Obama pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. The beautiful. The unexpected.
I stopped working professionally in politics because I care more about my values than any candidate. It was so hard for me to see my country more and more hateful and polarized during the last election. Living in Washington, D.C., the most political city in the world, was so stressful. Politics there seeps into every aspect of your life personal and professional. You can’t fully escape it. At times I felt like a recovering drug addict in a meth lab. I wanted to distance myself from politics but it was on every sushi bar TV screen, at every party, on every street corner.
So I came to Israel hoping for some space to breathe. I figured yes, there’s crappy politics here too, but at least I’ll be far away from the environment I had grown to hate.
The problem is that Israel’s politics, while perhaps more predictably bad than in America (where the pendulum swings a bit more), are just as bad if not worse. And as a Jew I had never really had to deal with politicians speaking in my name. Or trying to correct my Jewish identity. Or expelling refugees simply because they’re not Jewish. Or mocking religious Jews. And on and on.
And this of course filters down. To the “progressive” secular Jews who’ve tried to convince me why they should be able to say n*gger. To the Mizrachi lesbian who wants the government to “clean the streets of refugees”. To the Jews who told me Arabs don’t understand the concept of diplomacy and have no intellect. To the Orthodox who’ve told me the secular are “empty vessels” with no culture. To the Arab guy working at a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic theater in Yaffo who posted Facebook comments mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The hatred is palpable and people here mostly live separate lives. In separate school systems (Arab, Secular, Orthodox, and Haredi). Separate cities, separate neighborhoods.
It might sound odd given all the conflict in America right now, but things aren’t this divisive there. For all our issues, we are one of the most integrated and diverse countries in the world where a good part of the populace is committed to advancing those values where they are lacking. It’d be more difficult for me to think of friends who haven’t dated/married across racial, cultural, or religious lines than vice-versa. And that is actually quite unique in the world.
That being said, we can’t pretend that the problems in Israel are only found here. Every state privileges certain groups over others. It’s not coincidental that racism is on the rise from France to Burma, from Russia to South Africa. In every country, certain genders, sexualities, languages, religions, and other markers are given more prestige and resources. As a queer Jew with olive skin, who has been profiled as Latino and Arab, I live these realities wherever I go.
Some minorities when faced with the awful reality of discrimination and violence choose to build their own states. While, as you’ll see, I’m not sure that’s the best solution, I can understand it. Tired of having their languages banned (Catalans), religion persecuted (Jews), race degraded (Black Americans), some people coalesced behind the idea of self-rule. Which came to be understood as a state of their own. For people unfamiliar with the Black struggle for self-determination, here’s an article from just a few years ago. And the roots of the movement stretch back much further. In short, minorities get tired of being trampled on and want to pursue their own dreams.
I empathize with this and it presents a problem. Because there’s no such place as a country without minorities- of some sort. Even the seemingly most “monocultural” places like Sweden have 450,000 Finns and hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Persians. Which now makes me want to visit 🙂
So if we agree that between cultural, linguistic, and religious minorities- in addition to sexual minorities (LGBTQ) and gender- there will always be diversity. The question is whether the state is capable of treating everyone equally. If the model works to fully include all types of people.
The results aren’t great. Israel has never had a Haredi, Arab, Orthodox, or Mizrachi Prime Minister. It took the United States 232 years to elect a Black President. I have yet to see a Muslim leading a Western European country- a thought so absurd right now that someone is laughing while reading this. Or crying.
Because here’s some straight talk: if someone has more power, then someone else has less. In other words, there is no such thing as “neutral” privilege. If I’m gay and me and my partner are punished in the tax code, it’s not that we’re not equal. It’s that your heterosexuality is subsidized. So while left-of-center Israeli parties would like us to believe- perhaps in earnest or ignorance- that they will treat Arabs and refugees “more equally”, such a statement is an oxymoron. Because there’s no such thing as more equally. There’s equal or there’s discriminatory. There may be such a thing as “less discriminatory”. I just don’t find that a convincing or fair solution.
I heard a prominent left-of-center Member of Knesset the other day say that she’d let refugees stay under two conditions. One, they have to be “real refugees” and not economic migrants- an Orwellian distinction in international refugee law. As if fleeing grinding poverty isn’t a good reason to leave your country. But then she took it a step further and said “we’ll give the refugees the jobs Israelis don’t want.” And the two liberal American-Israeli women behind me couldn’t stop gushing about how wonderful this politician was. I would guess they’re full of rage at Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. But not a politician on their own team who degrades refugees.
Some people might read this blog and say “well, then we need to reform the system!” Perhaps- and I’m actually open to piecemeal reform if it gives people some relief. I’ve worked in favor it. I’d like to move the conversation beyond this because it’s a band-aid rather than a long-term fix.
As I’ve seen with my Jewish identity in Israel, having a state can be just as much of a curse as it is a blessing. For sure, saving Jewish lives is important and shouldn’t be dismissed. At the same time, when you give a small group of people the authority to dictate everyone else’s Judaism (not just the Rabbinate- also militant secularists), then you take the magic out of Judaism. When you have to rigidly define something for the purpose of governance, then you end up putting it in a box. When there is a state that purports to be Jewish, it then gets the power to decide who’s in and who’s out. And so the thing many Jews like about Israel- that it is a Jewish state- is the very thing that makes Jewish pluralism impossible here. Not unlikely- impossible. Because someone will always be left out.
The magic of Judaism is that we didn’t have a state for 2,000 years. So while Christian and Muslim empires fought for control and forced their subjects to follow this or that ideology, Judaism remained an untamed wilderness. A beautiful one. Sadly, a persecuted one. And one worth living for. A testimony to the chaos and diversity that can give rise to immense creativity, scholarship, and resilience. It’s not for nothing that we have the famous Yiddish phrase “tzvey yidn dray deyes”- 2 Jews, 3 opinions. Because unlike in faiths attached to a government, we were free to disagree, to question, to innovate. No Jew had enough power to effectively extinguish rival ideologies. They had to be debated or evaded on their merits.
As I wandered the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, I noticed a bunch of cop cars pulling up. Apparently, we had to stand around and wait until Vice President Mike Pence could make his way to the Western Wall. Why my beautiful day of cultural exploration had to be put on hold for this jerk, I don’t know. I hope God had a good talk with him at the Wall and maybe he’ll search his heart for some kindness towards queer people, women, the poor, and refugees.
I ran away from America, but America followed me.
Leaving the city walls, I met a nice young Palestinian man named Ahmed. We chatted in Arabic over tea as he told me about his studies of Sufism. I’ve long been intrigued by this mystical spirituality and got to see a performance of whirling dervishes with my Intro to Islam class in St. Louis. Ahmed impressed the heck out of me- he was familiar with Kabbalah, Torah shebe’al peh, perush, and so many other Jewish concepts. And he allowed me to teach him about Hasidic Judaism.
Because for those who don’t know, Hasidism and Sufism are both extremely mystical movements. Where, especially in their early years, there was little hierarchy and lots of room for experimentation. Which is what makes them so beautiful.
What I’ve come to realize from being in Israel is that I’m not sure what the cause is of human suffering. The modern state may be able to heal some of it and it’s also the source of much of it. I’ve already come to a point of doubt about how beneficial it is to have a Jewish state, even as I see some of the good it has done and could yet do.
So I approach my Palestinian friends with this thought: be careful what you wish for. I want you to have freedom, prosperity, dignity, and human rights. To be able to live in your culture in peace and to embrace you as my brothers and sisters. I think this is what most Jews wanted out of a Jewish state too. But we may have gotten more than we bargained for and it is eating our religion and tradition alive. I hope a Palestinian government wouldn’t have the power to define what that identity means- and who it will inevitably leave out.
What’s the best solution for the Middle East? Perhaps for the world? The no state solution. For anyone. We need a better way of organizing human life. I don’t- and can’t- have all the answers because it’s something we need to talk about together.
Let’s put down the flags and get to work. Because if you don’t think this is realistic, I don’t think guns and bombs are either.