I come from a progressive background. I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures). My DC suburban life was pretty liberal. I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew. And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.
I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America. I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.
When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad. Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.
One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?” There is even a catchy folk tune about it. The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good). I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.
When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose. And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble. And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions. To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.
Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things. For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people. While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans. Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house. As does almost every restaurant. I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises. I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary. Although it should be.
I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number. Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers. The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew. Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it. Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.
The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv. Or leading Reform services. Or going to pride parades. Or vegan hippie Shabbats. In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats. But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere. I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism. Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity. I would never live anywhere else.
Which brings me back to my original point. Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland. America is increasingly polarized. I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel. I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College. He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year. And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border. Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies. Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings. Saving who knows how many lives.
Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple. Nothing could be more true. The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years. The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them. The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs. Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them. And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries. And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived. And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.
In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions. Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR. Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks. Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago. Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on. And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.
There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here. Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.
IfNotNow is one of those groups. I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious. I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.
The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative. Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic. In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“. Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative. Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against. Without defining what “occupation” even means.
This is more than a semantic point. There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier. Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land. Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state. There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state. And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel. Who have citizenship. There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory. Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas. And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees. Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians. Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state. Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.
So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism. On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”
So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define. They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country. The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”. What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know. I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes. And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with. I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.
This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention. Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel. I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between. They all have their ups and downsides. Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes. And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism. Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference. One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.” Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people. And I get something out of all types of Judaism. I had a great time and made good friends.
As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone. We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while. Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day. I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class. I’m used to it at this point. I was just hoping. Hoping it had stopped.” A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.
I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay. And I plan on visiting her as well. I sent her a cute message too after we left.
Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis? A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?
No. But nothing can. Or at least I’m not sure what can. Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions. I’m not even sure what solutions there are. And I hope things calm down.
What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever. Is empathy. Is kindness. Is a joke. Is a smile. Is love. Is a visit. Is a cute emoji.
Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said. In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions. What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness? A joke? Hah! Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation! What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.
Which side are you on?
To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question. I’m a proud Israeli Jew. That’s my side. And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors. And I care about refugees. And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.
In short, I care. Not about “one side”. About people.
In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater. I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news. The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life. The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach. That, OK, has better bagels than here. But 10% of the soul.
I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic. I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood. I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own. And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit. Which I get.
Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything. That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before. Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.
My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from. Where my country is coming from. And to advocate with a little more understanding and love. And a little less yelling.
Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that. Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.